‘Booksmart’ Is A Very Funny Film About Teens That Actually Understands Teens

'Booksmart' understands what it means to be young in 2019.

Booksmart review

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I never knew I needed the image of two girls doing doughnuts in a car painted with flames in their graduation cap and gowns in my life, until Booksmart made it happen.

Reader, it was so cool that I almost gosh-dang cried.

Booksmart, the latest teen comedy and debut feature directed by actress Olivia Wilde, features two female high-achieving and extremely loyal best friends on their quest to chase one final seminal anecdote of their high school years the night before graduation: a party.

As a self-defined teen screen expert, I have never come across anything quite like Booksmart.

As a “party film”, it understands what is required of it: a ridiculously large, expensive house that no one really explains or comments on, with a pool large enough for the ethereal coming-of-age underwater shot. A flirty game of beer pong, drunken karaoke.

Yet, this is not your ordinary party film. Not only because two hilarious, ambitious and punchy girls are at the front for once, but because Booksmart challenges or removes the toxic tropes from the traditional party film — yet does so seamlessly so that it is even more wild and fun, and still everything you need.

Who Allowed You To Take My Breath Away?

Let me introduce you to my two new best friends: Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird), two fierce, feminist, extremely supportive and high achieving best friends who dedicate their high school years to make sure they do everything they can to get into the schools of their dreams (if this sounds like you, this will be your shit).

They walk through the school with confidence and a “bitch, don’t kill my vibe” superiority complex. Because they’ve always focused on studying and not parties, they believe they are the only ones in school who can get into the colleges of their dreams, such as Yale.

However, on the last day of school they realise that each of their classmates who partied and had social lives also got accepted into good colleges. Ain’t that a kick in the head?

On the last night before graduation, they decide to make up for all their missed experiences and spend their final night as high schoolers partying it up to prove they, too, partied in high school like most well-adjusted teens.

The film is a comedy of errors, as they bounce from one location to the next, to reach the Ultimate Graduation Party, hosted by resident heartthrob Nick (Mason Gooding). This includes a bougie-AF (yet deserted) party on a boat, a Barbie-like drug trip at the theatre kids murder mystery night, and a couple of awkward Lyft rides.

Booksmart makes up for its somewhat conventional plot with its original spin on the party film genre, updating and flipping old tropes on their heads.

They Don’t Know We’re Fun

There are many teen films about nerdy boys who go to a party: notably Superbad, which stars Beanie’s brother Jonah Hill.

In film, teen girls are usually trying to achieve popularity, get the guy, and/or are being catty bitches to each other (Easy A, Jawbreaker, She’s All That, to name a few).

Booksmart flips the narrative, not only putting two girls at the front of a high school comedy, but also refuting the myth that nerds are socially awkward and shy.

Instead of the comedy relying on their inability to participate correctly, Amy and Molly are loud, fun and freaking hilarious in the same way I know so many of my friends to be. Girls can be nerdy, smart and sociable.

Bonus points to the dialogue being authentically littered with swear words and inappropriate language like most shit-talking teens.

Hello, I Love You

To deliver this pitch-perfect dialogue, Wilde has collected a truly fantastic cast.

In real life, actresses Kaitlyn and Beanie lived together during the entire production process, resulting in a natural and effortless dynamic between the two of them.

To be fair, the entire cast was on fire — I honestly left the cinema deeply in love with each and every one of them. Standouts include Billie Lourd (a comedic genius) as the eccentric Gigi, the unicorn who can move seamlessly between cliques; Noah Galvin as the spirited and pretentious George, the leader of the Theatre Kid crowd; and Skyler Gisondo as lonely rich boy Jared, who just wants people to like him (I may be a little in love with his earnestness, wtf).

There’s bitchiness between classmates (“I swear to God” the default tone) but for real, in the end these teens all just love each other. There’s understanding and fondness and solidarity.

From Revenge of the Nerds to Mean Girls, past films had a clear evil force to punish, in order to reward the quirky protagonists’ “goodness”. Although Booksmart may appear to start out this way, the film is not in the business of pitting teens against each other.

It loves them too much.

The Kids Are Alright

Wilde clearly loves and respects today’s teens of this generation. Booksmart is filled with an understanding of what makes this generation who they are, and what it means and looks like to be young in 2019.

Too often teen films try too hard to seem relevant, filling their scripts with social media, characters talking in hashtags and overusing the word “selfie” (F*&% the Prom, The Perfect Date, most of Netlfix’s output).

It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to reach teens, but only on a surface level, without really understanding how they operate.

Wilde goes deeper: The teens of Booksmart are socially aware and engaged, but also full of spirit, general teenage antics and anxieties. The amount of feminist imagery in Amy and Molly’s bedrooms, and their dialogue, borders on comedic, but also feels hella accurate not only for the characters, but for many feminist teens with acess to Etsy.

Amy’s sexuality is also allowed to be a natural part of her identity without it being A Big Deal or obstacle. (Can someone please give Kaitlyn Dever my number?)

Wilde’s love and attention is evident in how unique and well-rounded each of the characters are. Not only are activist Amy and ambitious Molly’s personalities differentiated, but each supporting character is given a moment of depth and humanity too.

Teacher At The Party

Booksmart works, and feels so fresh and revelatory, because of the way it understands the tropes and standard beats of the party films of yester-year, and also updates and subverts them. Wilde gets this 95% right. However, a plot line between teacher Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams) and a male student toward the end of the film raised an eyebrow.

It is a wish-fulfilment fantasy straight out of an 80s party film (the kind which doesn’t age well). For a film which gladly celebrates teens, this plot was out of place and disrupted the ease.

This is not to say that teachers do not deserve a humanising moment themselves. As the cool, young, take-no-shit teacher who Amy and Molly idolise, Ms. Fine is the one who gets them to the party.

She has her moment of relatability; a symbol of the way teachers can help guide us. Everything after that ruins the impact.

You Oughta Know!

What makes teen comedies (and the party film in particular) so popular, is the fun and youthful nostalgia, the rites of passage, which people like to return to time and time again to remind them of being young.

However, these films can also be incredibly alienating.

Booksmart operates on the premise that if you didn’t party in high school, you didn’t really do high school ‘right’. This is a feeling I’ve been chasing and continue to wrestle with even as I reach my mid-20s (why do you think I love teen film so much? To live vicariously). I cheered because finally high-achieving nerdy girls (who I saw myself in) got their chance, but still felt alienated.

It also has a class issue which it does not engage with (how can so many of their classmates afford to go to all these elite and expensive colleges? How can Molly, who lives in an apartment? Do any of them have jobs?) and with all the diversity in the supporting cast, the only woman of colour is Ms. Fine: where are the girls of colour, and their story?

With Booksmart, director Olivia Wilde and screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman offer new and exciting opportunities for girls and teen characters in film, celebrating and reflecting their complexity. It should be possible to celebrate all the great things this film does, while still acknowledging where it is blind, and hope the progress continues to make up for it.

Booksmart is a wild ride filled with wit, hilarity, and hijinks; intense female solidarity, friendship, and authenticity; a killer soundtrack and a whole lot of fun. I look forward to watching it again and again and again.

Booksmart is currently in Australian cinemas.

Claire White is a writer, bookseller, teen screen tragic, and counts the Class of 2013 Teachers Pet Award among one of her many achievements. Follow her on Twitter: @theclairencew and @teencineteq.