As a genre, teen comedy has a lot to answer for. While most films have the relatability of angst, isolation and identity crises down pat, so often the formula fails to provide an authentic representation of what it’s really like to be a 21st century teenager. We love a coming-of-age story as much as the next person, but surely we’ve moved past the subliminal messaging of ‘glow up’ montages and problematic love triangles?
Enter Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, a teen comedy that finally puts female friendship front and centre. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are best friends, united in their quest for academic domination and determined to reach Ivy League success. They’re also the sort of people you could totally imagine yourself wanting to be friends with, even if the only reason they have fake IDs is to give them access to a 24/7 library. With Yale and Columbia in their sights, it appears that the duo have well and truly justified their straight-laced high school careers, until they realise their classmates have been having their cake and eating it too. Turns out even the popular kids in this film care about grades and aren’t all blonde haired, blue eyed clones. Praise be.
With just one night remaining to avoid their high school experience being written off as nothing more than a stellar SAT score, Molly calls a ‘Malala’ (she is the embodiment of fearless girl goals, after all) and decides that she and Amy will have to cram four years of rebellion and fun into just a few hours at a pre-graduation party hosted by the coolest kid in school. OK, so great teen comedy doesn’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. Before their night even begins, the pair find themselves waylaid by classmates Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and Gigi (Billie Lourd), and wind up escaping a poorly attended yacht party, unknowingly dosed with a potent drug, and hitching a ride with both their ride-share driver principal (Jason Sudeikis) and favourite English teacher (Jessica Williams).
That’s the first thing to love about this film: every character is a fleshed out, flawed, yet real human being, adding some much needed grit to the one-dimensional stereotypes perpetuated by other movies of the genre. Initially, the introduction of the usual high school cliques leaves audiences anticipating the recognisably shallow and immature portrayals we’ve become accustomed to, but as Molly herself opens up to the possibility that her peers may have more to them than she gave them credit for, each individual gets their moment in the spotlight. It’s safe to say that Molly and Amy are proven wrong on more than one occasion, in the best possible way.
It’s these two girls at the centre of the story, however, who are its greatest triumph. Molly might be the class president, set on being the youngest Supreme Court Justice in American history, but having Ruth Bader Ginsburg as your hero doesn’t mean you’ve got the world of romance figured out. It also doesn’t make her immune to the charm of her vice-president, pretty boy Nick (Mason Gooding), even if she is determined to deny it.
Amy is in the same boat: she’s been out for two years, and though she’s planned an incredible gap year and secured a place at Columbia, she’s yet to experience her first relationship, let alone kiss a girl. They might be mutually illiterate when it comes to affairs of the heart, but what’s refreshing is the complete lack of shame or self-loathing attached to their inexperience. Molly and Amy aren’t afraid to laugh at themselves, making for some hilarious and heartwarming moments. Finding love is so far from the sole narrative arc; this is about two young women helping each other figure out who they are, without judgement.
Much of the credit for the film’s ability to perfectly balance a well-established format with a healthy dose of reality has to go to its supremely clever script, given a very ‘of the moment’ feel by screenwriter Katie Silberman (Set It Up). What started as the 2009 brainchild of Emily Halpern (Heist, Spartan) and Sarah Haskins (Good Girls), with a 2014 rewrite by Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), eventually got the Silberman treatment overseen by Wilde in her feature directorial debut. They say teamwork makes the dream work, and this is a perfect example. It’s properly funny. That’s the second thing to love about this film: the usual teen movie tropes are handled in a way that serves to enhance their relevance and avoids the limitations of cliché, proving that not every high school tale has to be about fundamentally changing who you are to fit in.
If there’s a final thing to love about Booksmart, it’s that it refuses to sugar-coat the challenges of maintaining a friendship, especially in your teens. While it’s comedic to the core, it acknowledges that even the strongest bonds can be tested by the pressures that the end of high school, or indeed any other period of change, brings. Though the party’s primary purpose is a chance at redemptive rebellion, the intense number of pivotal ‘firsts’ that Molly and Amy encounter throughout the night put our protagonists through the emotional wringer. The pair love and support each other unconditionally, but learning how to be individuals is tougher than they could have imagined. Their arguments are even more powerful as they are not rooted in a love triangle, but instead in the plans and personalities of these two remarkable young women.
That is where the success of the film lies. It might be a little absurd, even dramatic at times, but it’s a rare look at a realistic female friendship and a much needed shake-up for a genre that was well overdue for a revamp. It really does tick every box.
Booksmart is streaming at SBS On Demand now.