Written by Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, and Katie Silberman
Directed by Olivia Wilde
Superbad came out twelve years ago. At the time, I knew this was a high school comedy for a generation younger than myself. With Booksmart we’re presented with a high school comedy about a generation graduating nineteen years after my own, so I have begun to feel the growing chasm in my own experiences and the intended audience of this picture. Booksmart is a movie written with my students of years prior in mind, yet it is inspired by so many films that have come before.
Booksmart is going to compared to Superbad, and there’s pretty much nothing we can do about it. Besides starring Beanie Feldstein, the sister to Jonah Hill, other common factors are that the plots are fundamentally the same: losers go out to party at the beginning of their last summer together. This night of revelry gets real when one friend reveals that she lied about her summer plans and that our protagonists are parting ways sooner than realized. You won’t be surprised by the story of Booksmart, but I don’t think that harms your enjoyment of the picture.
The secret weapon that makes Booksmart rise above merely being a female re-imagining of Superbad is that they employed casting director Allison Jones. Jones was in charge of casting for the cult television hit Freaks and Geeks which essentially birthed contemporary comedy from 2000 to the present. She was the woman who found Seth Rogen, James Franco, and many other familiar faces that have continually had a presence in the Apatow/McKay/Ferrell bubble of comedy. You see that same touch for different looks and personalities spread throughout Booksmart, diversity beyond just the external but a beautiful mix of grounded high school personalities.
So many decisions in this movie result in a much smarter film than I expected. Amy is an out lesbian since the tenth grade but, like most high school students CIS or LGTBQ, don’t have much if any experience due to the awkward emotions and anxieties of being a teenager. Not a single person in Amy’s life is judgmental of her sexuality; she’s nervous about talking to girls she likes. Seeing her fumble through a series of interactions, watching her confidence grow, and then the twist the whole endeavor takes are compelling moments in the film. There’s a poignancy mixed in with the comedy of these scenes that I don’t think I’ve seen pulled off so well in a long time, and it is also so refreshing to see such a real, tender taken on queer sexuality in a major film.
If we’re going to compare Booksmart to adjacent comedy, then I would say it share common threads with Broad City and another great summer comedy film Bridesmaids. The relationship between these two young women is, and you couldn’t tell this particular take on this story without the characters being female. The movie never indulges in preachiness about girl power that would undercut the organic nature of the friendship. Amy and Molly are the element that keeps the movie real while some hilariously absurd things happen around them: a murder-mystery party hosted by the drama kids, an overly cautious and worried pizza delivery man, the rich kid’s pathetic yacht party.
There are no villains; everyone feels like a multi-dimensional character that can’t be pegged down to a stereotype, something Molly is confronted with in the third act. The stoners aren’t just mindless dudes; the class “slut” is going to Yale, the theater geeks are lovably passionate about their art. Booksmart is the honest, feel-good comedy we needed to kick off this summer the right way.