Every decade has that one teen comedy that just speaks to a particular generation, accurately capturing the zeitgeist in a way that not only makes it irresistible in the moment, but imbues the film with a sense of almost historical importance. These include such hits as Animal House, Sixteen Candles, American Pie, Mean Girls, and Superbad, amongst others. But the 2010s really hadn’t found its own teen comedy to champion – that is, until Booksmart came along to ace the test with flying colors.
To be fair, it’s been a surprising decade where we’ve flipped the switch on what’s considered normal, with a stronger sense of equality amongst genders, sexualities, and races that’s improving bit by bit every day. The world changes almost overnight nowadays, oftentimes for the better, but it’s still difficult to keep up sometimes. How do you capture a moment in time that’s constantly shifting and not have it feel disingenuous, particularly when the latest generation, Gen-Z, feels like a chameleon? Most attempts to replicate their way of life rings hollow or fake. You can just picture a room of older executives trying in vain to understand what it means to be “on fleek” or who Cardi B. is in some valiant attempt to appeal to a demographic that’s basically shunned the movies.
Booksmart‘s got the right kind of simple but endlessly appealing set up. On the eve of their high school graduation, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) realize they’ve messed up. Despite their staggeringly good grades and acceptance into Ivy League colleges, while they were studying, their classmates were partying, having fun… and also making good grades and getting into prestigious colleges. Molly vows to Amy that they won’t go their entire high school career (which has all of twelve or so hours left) without having been to at least one party. Lucky for them, the school’s most popular kid, Nick, who Molly harbors a secret crush for, is having a party up in the Hills. The problem? They don’t have the address and since they were such recluses, nobody really knows them. But determined as ever, Molly and Amy set out on a crazy night across Los Angeles in order to prove that everybody read them wrong. While the narrative is not much of a deviation from stories like Sixteen Candles or Superbad (which ironically stars Feldstein’s brother, Jonah Hill), it’s a film that revels less in an overarching sense of plot and more in the littler moments. The plot keeps things moving at a brisk, focused pace, but Booksmart is at its most fun when it places Molly and Amy in precarious social situations that force the girls to break out of their comfort zones. It is, after all, a film about an incredible friendship and bond between these two girls, with a creeping sense that once high school is over, things might never be the same.
The true endurability of these teen comedies, for all their resonance as products of soon-to-be bygone time periods, is actually a common sense of universality that threads them all together. While good comedy is not reliant upon any prior knowledge and often works best when the film does the legwork and has plenty of set ups that allow an audience to expect pay offs, all these films capture something incredible important about the difficulty of being a teenager: you’re in a constant battle with nobody but yourself. Think about it. Teenagers are constantly fighting their own preconceived notions about who they are and who they have to be in order to fit into a sort of caste system that’s a bit ruthless socially. But in all the pressure to become something deemed worthy in the eyes of others, teenagers often shirk the parts of themselves that need to be let free so they can grow up and mature. Both Molly and Amy suffer from separate things; whereas Molly is unknowingly controlling, Amy is often timid. They change and mature, not because they’ve finally fit in within the ranks of their classmates, but because they’ve made small victories for themselves, such as Amy courageously and triumphantly singing Alanis Morisette during karaoke at the party.
In a film about moments, Booksmart also captures one of the most harrowing things about being a teenager: time, specifically, how it eventually runs out. Graduation is an important ceremony not just because it celebrates the completion of education, but also because it represents crossing the threshold into the next phase of life. It makes all those systems and social hierarchies obsolete, and for many teenagers who found stability and structure within those confines, graduation is equally parts rewarding and horrifying. Both Molly and Amy represent a fear that many high schoolers have, that they’ll never have the opportunity to do things as a high schooler again – and thus will have missed out on a vital part of their teenage lives. It seems silly to think that we may have ever stressed about whether or not we had our first kiss in high school or later in life, but when you’re young, the future is expansive and unknowable.
This idea of time and maturation conflates nicely with two other films about teenagers becoming young adults, Lady Bird and Everybody Wants Some!!. In my review for Lady Bird, I discussed how Christine was so ready and willing to move ahead with her life just to put Sacramento behind her. In the process, she risked forsaking the genuine things that made her who she was in her haste to leave it behind. That film explored a teenager absolutely chomping at the bit to become an adult, with the belief that adulthood is the final leg in the race of life (surprise: it’s not). Contrast that with Everybody Wants Some!!, Richard Linklater’s surprisingly philosophical exploration of the passage between high school and college. Chronicling the weekend before college starts and following a rowdy, rambunctious group of baseball players in Austin, Texas, Everybody Wants Some!! is in constant conversation with itself, asking its carefree characters exactly who they think they are. And that runs deep, because even though high school ends, and that part of life is put behind us, we aren’t blank slates but a foundation on which we still need to do some building. Booksmart combines the two: is it more important to have experiences for the sake of experiences, or is it more important to allow life to teach and inform us who we are and could be without forcing its hand?
As a film, Booksmart isn’t terribly original, but teen comedies are the one genre that actually thrives from a sense of familiarity. What distinguishes them is the time period they capture and how they use the social norms to get at something universal regarding their teen protagonists. Booksmart captures Gen-Z in a way hardly any film has been able to so far, never looking down at their absurdity while still finding the time to gently rib some of their contrivances. And it helps that it’s consistently funny, sometimes in really inventive ways, such as a stop-motion drug-trip segment that derives much pleasure from how weird it is. And that’s to say nothing of its young cast, who are all extremely determined and talented, particularly the late Carrie Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, who is on a level all her own as a totally manic scene-stealer. If the film feels like it takes place in some neoliberal paradise, where all the students are extremely smart and social whilst being politically correct and hot for equality, it feels of a piece with the broadness that director Olivia Wilde comes at the material with. Maybe that helps it feel a little more universal too, or perhaps, like its protagonists, hopeful for the future.