When I was a teen in the mid-’90s, it felt like most movies and TV shows about my generation depicted us as mostly self-absorbed and a little bit ridiculous. Even the best teens were only really thinking about their small, high school lives. If they thought about what came next, it was in highly abstract terms (or, in the case of someone like Tracy Flick, a sign that they were kind of a monster).
This was before social media, before we all had mobile phones, before it was so, so easy to be connected to the entire globe, of course. But I got the idea, and I think most of my peers did, too, that it was normal to consider your friends and your school to be the whole world. Anyone who talked about injustices or had big plans for the future (with some notable exceptions, like Rory Gilmore) was sidelined onscreen, doomed to be at best a supporting character whom everyone side-eyed.
That was 15 or 20 years ago, though, and something has appreciably shifted. The 21 Jump Street reboot in 2012 hung a bunch of humor on just that shift, in fact. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, playing undercover cops, pose as teenagers and go back to high school. The joke is that back in, presumably, the mid-’90s, Tatum was a popular jock and Hill was a schlubby nerd, but now the roles are reversed. Being active in social justice is cool. Being nice, having an inclusive social circle, caring about the environment, being gay — they’re all cool. Two-strapping your backpack? Now cool.
That’s the difference between “elder” millennials (those of us born closer to the 1980 side of the generation) and our younger peers; teens today know what’s going on in the world. And movies and TV have finally caught up to that fact, with everything from Blockers to Love, Simon to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to Edge of Seventeen centering on teenagers who, yeah, are immature and make dumb decisions and do things they probably shouldn’t but are, on the whole, “good kids,” with distinct desires and an interest in the world.
All that is my way of saying that Booksmart, the debut directorial feature from Olivia Wilde, is a very satisfying movie for anyone who was never cool enough to see themselves in the star of a ‘90s teen comedy. Covering that last hurrah before graduation, in which two girls are determined to shed their “booksmart” ways and have a fun night, it seems destined to become a teen classic — and to become a shining example of Good Teen Storytelling.
Booksmart is about realizing you might not be as smart as you thought
Best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) spent all of high school buckling down, skipping parties, studying in the library, and participating in extracurriculars, determined to get into the colleges of their choice. Not, they think, like their burnout, partying classmates, destined for lives working at the gas station or something.
And it works! They get in: Molly to Yale, Amy to Columbia. After the summer (which Amy will spend in Botswana, teaching women to make their own tampons), the pair will head for their colleges and their bright futures.
Their school has a policy in which students don’t discuss which college they’re going to, so as not to make anyone feel left out or demoralized, which is why it takes until the day before graduation for the girls to find out that while they’re both very smart, they haven’t been very savvy. Their burnout classmates, as it turns out, aren’t burnouts at all. They managed to party and have sex and do dumb teen things and also earn stellar grades, ace the SATs, and get into Ivy League schools.
Rocked by the discovery that they didn’t have to be recluses to reach their goals — and that their smugness about their classmates’ presumed futures was totally unmerited — Amy and Molly decide that they’re going to go hard on the night before graduation and see what they were missing. Which means, as always, that they’re going to a party thrown by one of their classmates,.
Which kicks off one wild night. Booksmart follows the pair through a series of mishaps, missed connections, triumphs, sexual discovery, and personal revelations. It’s a movie about friendship and being a good person, finally copping to what you want, revising your prejudices and assumptions about others, and being brave enough to own up to who you are. (Also, it is very, very funny.)
Booksmart is a delightful reminder that growing up is about realizing nobody’s a stereotype
It’s another film in the grand tradition of right-around-graduation movies (Can’t Hardly Wait, Dazed and Confused, Pretty in Pink, 10 Things I Hate About You), but Booksmart gives off especially distinct Superbad vibes, both in story structure and its general theme of growing up. (Incidentally, Feldstein — who played Saoirse Ronan’s best friend in 2017’s Lady Bird — is Superbad star Jonah Hill’s younger sister.)
Yet in Wilde’s hands and with a screenplay penned by four women, Booksmart feels like an evolution for the genre. That’s probably because it focuses on more than just Amy and Molly (though Feldstein and Dever are hilarious and pitch-perfect in their roles). A rich cast of teens proves that neither virtue nor vice exclusively belongs to one social group. There’s the most popular guy in school, who turns out to be really sweet, and the least popular guy, who turns out to be much more interesting than anyone expected. There’s the girl Amy is crushing on hard and the girl she hates, both of whom surprise her.
No one in Booksmart, as it turns out, is an archetype — they’re just people, doing their best. Becoming an adult often involves realizing that everything you assumed about someone was wrong, that people are much more interesting and complex than they seem, that sometimes the person you thought was your nemesis was actually just living their life as best they could and was probably never a bad person to begin with.
Which means that Booksmart doesn’t really have a villain. And telling a story that lacks villains isn’t easy, and it’s rare in the teen movie genre. But Booksmart and other recent movies like it prove it can be done. You don’t need the mean cheerleader or dumb jock to be a one-note antagonist in order to make the movie work.
In fact, in a sense, the real villain was just inside us all along. When you’re a teenager, you project your feelings onto the world, sure that you’re in the right and everyone is out to get you. But in reality, your biggest enemy is usually yourself.
Booksmart taps into that truth and makes it memorably relatable in a way that goes far beyond the cap, gown, and college acceptance letters. After all, you don’t stop growing up — and learning to be a better person — after you graduate.
Booksmart opens in theaters on May 24.