When looking online at lists of the best teen movies of all time, you’ll likely notice that the 1980s and early 1990s tend to dominate. While John Hughes often leads with classics like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – as well as films that have aged far worse like Sixteen Candles – Amy Heckerling’s Clueless can be found topping many a list, as can 10 Things I Hate About You, a brilliant Shakespearian adaptation. But recently, a new teenage canon has been in development, and though some (mostly older) viewers may dismiss films like Lady Bird and The Edge Of Seventeen as a flash in the pan, it’s hard to deny their quality and emotional resonance. This trend continues with Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart, a film as quick and intelligent as its title suggests.
Although Booksmart contains themes of surfaces vs interiors and young romance, it wisely keeps its main focus on the friendship between the two leads, Beanie Feldstein’s overachieving Molly, and Kaitlyn Dever’s more timid Amy. After years of looking down on them, Molly discovers that her peers have gotten into universities and jobs as impressive as her own spot at Yale, and realizes that she has inadvertently isolated herself through her entire high school experience. She decides to change this the night before graduation and convinces Amy to come to a party with her, in part to match her only friend with cool-girl Ryan, who she has been too anxious to approach despite having come out as gay several years prior. Inevitably, the night doesn’t go as planned, and the foundations of their friendship are put to the test during their last chance at rebellion.
Many other critics have pointed out the similarities to Superbad – even down to Feldstein being the younger sister of Jonah Hill – and while the film does hit some similar themes like friendship and personal growth, and occasionally indulges in some excellent gross-out comedy, there are some notable differences. Firstly, and most obviously, Booksmart is much more overtly political; the director and the writer (Emily Halpern) are both women, and clearly wanted to add a feminist slant to a story that’s been done before. While there are some male characters, the point of the film is very clearly to emphasize the value of female friendship and solidarity, even outside of the central relationship. Without spoiling too much, we find out throughout that some girls that initially fill stereotypical roles in the film are far more than meets the eye, and actually have deep inner worlds that even the girl-power main duo don’t give them credit for. Amy’s sexuality is also significant, especially because she receives a sex scene as awkward as Michael Cera’s in Superbad – her identity as a lesbian here clearly isn’t to please a male audience, but to provide representation for other teen lesbians looking to see themselves on the big screen.
This is a film that wouldn’t succeed without the performances at its core, and both Feldstein and Dever do a brilliant job bringing their respective characters to life. Flawed but likable, hilarious but sincere, these two represent possibly the best teen girl comedy act I’ve ever seen onscreen. And this is to say nothing of their chemistry: at no point do you doubt that their friendship and love for one another is genuine. Another special mention should go to Billie Lourd for her turn as the eccentric rich girl Gigi, whose bizarre appearances through the film were memorably weird. I was never quite sure whether I was laughing at her or with her, but honestly, I don’t think she would care either way.
At a time when Disney is slowly taking over the entire film industry, it is more important than ever to show support for smaller pictures that don’t get the same amount of money or level of marketing put behind them. Booksmart is a movie that absolutely deserves the praise it’s getting, and while it’s unreasonable to think it should be making as much money as Endgame at the box office, allowing it to turn a profit would mean so much to women in film everywhere, by sending the message that female lead movies are valuable, interesting, and significant for so many who see them.