At this point, in the pantheon of teenage coming of age movies, it’s hard to stand out. Not only because there has been a pretty steady stream of great teenage movies ever since American Graffiti really kicked started the genre back in the ’70s. But also because the past few years have seen some really strong teen movies that managed to avoid being mired clichés, such as last year’s Eight Grade, or the year before’s Lady Bird. Yet, somehow, despite abiding by some fairly well-worn teen movie tropes, Booksmart manages to feel very fresh while being perhaps the funniest teen comedy since Superbad.
Of course, Superbad is an easy comparison, seeing as it stars Jonah Hill’s real-life sister Beanie Feldstein, who plays Molly, an overachieving class president who has always played by the rules. Molly, however, isn’t complete without her bestie Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who has been similarly well-behaved her entire high school life, while also making sense of being gay in addition to the other profoundly confusing things about being a teenager. After Molly learns that some of the more seemingly lazy, “cooler” kids have gotten into just as prestigious schools as her, she loses her shit and decides that it’s about time these buttoned-down friends make it to the cool kids’ big party and let loose.
This “make it to the big party” plot device not only harkens back to Superbad, but also Dazed and Confused and probably other movies that aren’t coming to mind. In fact, I think the two most popular teen movie plotlines are either this one or the kind of teen movie that just takes place over the course of an entire school year (Lady Bird, Mean Girls, Fast Times, etc.) Granted, I’m not sure I’ve seen a movie that deals with this specific idea that just because you work hard enough to get good grades and try your damnedest to get into a good school, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other people out there that are just more naturally gifted than you. Which is a fact that can be pretty devastating.
The great thing about Booksmart though, is that it doesn’t go out of its way to vilify the underachievers in the film. In many ways, Molly and Amy come off as the most immature and crass of the characters, and yet they’re so damn funny and charming together that you can’t help but like them. Also, being a teenager is so weird and bewildering, even when you’ve made it to graduation like Molly and Amy, that it’s hard not to root for these underdogs.
As I mentioned earlier, Booksmart does sometimes succumb a bit too much to the tropes of the teenage buddy comedy. In particular, there’s a scene where Molly and Amy fall out of favor with each other and have a shouting match, which despite a modern touch, doesn’t quite separate itself from the same scene in every other teen buddy comedy. That said, despite the archetypes contained in the film, I think the film’s empathy for today’s modern teen shines through. Director Olivia Wilde gives the film both a light touch at times, and at others a heightened stylishness that feels well-tuned to the YouTube generation.
Some of the film’s modern touches include the budding romantic life of Amy and a girl she has a crush on, which feels both very fresh and like something we haven’t seen done thoughtfully. Or at least, in a raunchy comedy like this one. Also, the fact that Molly isn’t referred to even once as overweight is a great thing to see, and probably the kind of thing you’d only get from a teen movie with mostly women at the helm. I suppose the possibilities of different perspectives telling coming-of-age stories is another thing that has kept the genre fresh, but really every generation has a different story to tell. So for that reason, the story of a bunch of goofball characters getting to be goofballs for one more night will always be timeless.