In 2007, a little movie called Superbad came along and took moviegoers by storm. Launching the careers of future A-listers Emma Stone and Jonah Hill while grossing over eight times its budget, Superbad became a modern genre classic cementing Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg as certified comedy hitmakers. A look at the modern teenage experience through the lens of rebellious adolescents, the intervening twelve years has spawned countless imitators but none that captured the same magic. On first glance, one might think Booksmart might fall into that same territory – it even stars Jonah Hill’s sister – but Booksmart is far more than just a “female Superbad”. It is a wonderful exploration of Generation Z values that delicately balances raunchy comedy and sincere teenage emotions.
To briefly extend the Superbad comparison: this film’s “Seth and Evan,” so to speak, are Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever). Molly is the class valedictorian, with aspirations of becoming the youngest justice ever appointed to the Supreme Court after her upcoming studies at Yale; Amy is similarly education-driven and is set to take some time off before her continued studies at Columbia to volunteer in Botswana. But what these two overlooked in their four years of intense dedication to high school comes to attention with a confrontation between Molly and a few slackers: the latter have also been accepted to prestigious Ivy League schools or six-figure jobs in Silicon Valley, all while having time for high school debauchery on the side. This sets in motion a journey of self-discovery for Molly and Amy as they set out to squeeze in one last night of partying before their high school journey ends the next day.
The Superbad comparisons are admittedly obvious – two inseparable teens looking for a last hurrah before graduation – and there are plenty of similarities to other coming-of-age teen movies (there are hints of Lady Bird, which also featured Feldstein), but Booksmart goes in directions that set it apart from those stories and keeps things fresh.
The film marks the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, an actress whose rather diverse filmography surely helps with her first foray behind the camera. Under a different director’s eye, the film’s huge ensemble of supporting personalities – from the school’s infamously promiscuous “Triple A” (Molly Gordon) to rich kid Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and scene-stealing enigma Gigi (Billie Lourd) – could be reduced to little more than colorful but empty stereotypes: instead, Wilde and her team of four writers (all women) wisely avoid this, and by film’s end, almost all of them are revealed to be well-rounded, empathetic characters in their own right.
Wilde isn’t afraid to lean into the crazier shenanigans we expect from the genre though: the film is jam-packed with laughs that she keeps consistent throughout the entire film. Her visual flair almost feels like a “throw everything and see what sticks” approach, but fortunately – and somewhat surprisingly – it almost all does. On paper, a drug-fueled, stop-motion animated sequence sounds ridiculous, even for a raunchy teen comedy, but Wilde has crafted a tone that makes it work to effective results. In handling more grounded technical aspects, Wilde showcases a wonderful understanding of lighting and color, especially as the night progresses and Molly and Amy find themselves illuminated by everything from neon store signs and street lamps to the vivid colorscape of a party’s interior. Likewise, Wilde’s use of a long, unbroken shot during a big third act interaction is the kind of decision that adds a kind of power to the scene but is so tastefully handled that it doesn’t draw attention to itself.
But Wilde’s biggest accomplishment behind the camera is undoubtedly the performances she coaxes out of her two stars, the glue that holds the film together. Feldstein shares the same explosive charisma and knack for physical comedy as her brother in her first starring role: in such a short span of time, she is proving to be an acting force that will surely follow the same trajectory of her brother’s career. Dever more or less plays the straight (wo)man to Feldstein, but she has her own self-deprecating sense of humor that makes for a more subdued comedic performance, and a touching sincerity when Wilde slows things down and examines Amy’s sexuality more closely. And, of course, the two are an impeccable pairing: from the opening scenes where they first share the screen, Feldstein and Dever have a spark that immediately signals 105 minutes of fun.
Their relationship hits all the beats you expect, and anyone who’s seen any teen comedies will know what directions it will take, but Feldstein and Dever, and Wilde by extension, make it feel so fresh that it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it’s by having this kind of platonic relationship revolve around two young women, an unfortunate rarity in the genre, Or maybe it’s the naturalistic teenage qualities that Wilde has given these two characters, which don’t shy away from very real moments of vulnerability.