Movies

Booksmart Is More Than Just a Queer, Gender-Flipped Superbad

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut brings a whole new energy to the high school comedy canon.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in a car wearing graduation caps and gowns Booksmart.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever in Booksmart.
Annapurna Pictures/MGM

Booksmart, the feature directing debut of actress Olivia Wilde, has been widely compared to Greg Mottola’s 2007 comedy Superbad, and with good reason: Like that movie, it’s the dirty-minded but ultimately sweet tale of two teenage misfits, longtime best friends who set out on an all-night journey into the unknown-to-them world of high school partying. One of those friends is played by the buoyant Beanie Feldstein, younger sister to Superbad co-star Jonah Hill. Both films also share a casting director, Allison Jones, whose keen eye for new faces is evident from the fact she cast the 1999–2000 series Freaks and Geeks, a one-season cult hit that became the incubator for a generation of comic talent. But Booksmart differs from Superbad in one significant respect: It’s created by women, from the director to the team of four screenwriters (Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman) to co-leads Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever.

This gender switch gives Booksmart a subtly different energy from Superbad, even if Wilde doesn’t reinvent the teen comedy, or set out to. Her first film is a fresh and accomplished entry in the high school movie canon, not a satire or subversion of the genre. Strands of genetic material from John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, and Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused wend their way through the party-centric plot, while Feldstein’s presence can’t help but conjure memories of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which just two years ago explored adjacent territory: close but complicated female friendships, the lovable pretentiousness of bright teenage girls, the preemptively nostalgic ache of senioritis.

But Booksmart distinguishes itself from those films by the degree of its investment in the friendship at its center. The connection between Molly (Feldstein) and Amy (Dever) is more than the backdrop against which each girl’s sentimental education plays out. Their relationship is as intense and at times as fraught as a love affair, though it doesn’t exist on that continuum: Early on we learn that Amy is an out, if utterly inexperienced, lesbian, while Molly is an equally virginal straight girl. Each acts as the other’s personal life coach, wardrobe consultant, and romantic wingwoman. Whenever Amy sees the skater-punk chick she’s crushed out on (Victoria Ruesga), Molly urges her to strike up a conversation, and when Molly, the class valedictorian and a straight-laced, Yale-bound nerd, confesses her secret love for a dim-bulb jock named Nick (Mason Gooding, son of Cuba Gooding Jr.), Amy doesn’t judge and instead helps her friend look for her chance to make a move.

On the last day of their senior year, at Molly’s somewhat bossy insistence, they ditch their original evening plans (a celebratory cake followed by a night of Ken Burns docs) and decide to attend an unsupervised rager hosted by Nick. The problem: They’re not invited, no one at the party particularly likes them, and they have no idea how to get there. The first third of the movie becomes a quest to track down the house’s address—an epic journey that takes them first to two other graduation parties, one a sad affair on the near-empty yacht of the class rich kid (Skyler Gisondo) and the other a murder mystery–themed dinner thrown by two self-serious theater geeks (Noah Galvin and Austin Crute). At last, after an awkward Lyft ride from their moonlighting school principal (Wilde’s real-life fiancé, Jason Sudeikis), an encounter with a cranky pizza deliveryman (Mike O’Brien), and a helping hand from their favorite teacher (an agreeably laid-back Jessica Williams), the girls make it to Nick’s party, where the promise of true love—or at least a decent shot at a hookup—awaits amid the red Solo cups.

The rest of the night is a blur of beer pong, bathroom make-outs, police raids, and long-deferred confrontations, all scored to a bouncy soundtrack of pop, indie rock, and hip-hop. Visually and aurally, Booksmart is packed with treats. The color palette is Starburst-bright, and the story proceeds as much via dialogue-free blasts of music and motion as via conversation. When the girls get dosed with an exotic hallucinogen by Gigi (Carrie Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd)—a manic pixie drug girl who somehow manages to beat them to every party they attend—the result is an animated stop-motion sequence in which they perceive themselves as Playboy-proportioned, genitalia-free Barbie dolls. It’s the ultimate nightmare for a pair of sex-positive feminists like Molly and Amy, who, however marginal their social status at school, are refreshingly free of self-consciousness about their bodies or looks. One of the movie’s running gags is a Broad City–style bit in which the two girls engage in a compliment-off, each declaring the other the most dazzling thing she’s ever beheld in an escalating spiral of praise.

Booksmart trades less in humiliating displays of social hierarchy than your average high school comedy, to such a degree that some might say the world it establishes is unrealistically nice. There are no real villains in the story, only teenagers with varying levels of maturity and compassion. There’s also a curious lack of attention to issues of class and privilege: The story proceeds on the comfortable assumption that practically everyone at Crockett High can both get into and afford a top-flight college. But the presence of a queer female character who doesn’t struggle with her sexuality—except in the sense that she would really like to find someone to have sex with—feels revolutionary in itself. Unfortunately, the scene in which Amy does finally get a little action falls back on some tired bro-comedy stereotypes about what lesbians actually do. But if the sex scene’s anatomical humor is off-putting, its emotional IQ is right on the money—as is that of another scene in which the two friends have it out over some long-simmering resentments between them.

Booksmart is a teen sex romp well suited for the summer of 2019: feminist but not preachy, raunchy but not nasty, emotionally intelligent but not sentimental. It establishes the 35-year-old Wilde as a director to watch (though I hope her days in front of the camera aren’t over) and confirms both Feldstein and Dever as emerging comic stars. The fizzy final credits, in which we witness all the cast members getting pelted in the face by slow-motion water balloons, send you out of the theater in a playful mood. Sure, there’s an element of fantasy to this movie’s relatively frictionless vision of teen female self-actualization; if only it were this easy to party all night, hang with your BFF all day, and gain admission to (not to mention pay the tuition at) an Ivy League school. But dudes have been playing out their high school fantasies on screen for a long time, often at the expense of characters with fewer cultural advantages. It’s an energizing blast to watch two geeky but undaunted girls not only fight for but joyously reclaim their right to party.