In August of 2007, Superbad hit theaters and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I had graduated from high school three months earlier and though I’d never sat in a ride along with infantile po-po, or forced to sing karaoke to a room full of coke heads, the theme of life’s defining crossroads and their inevitable effect on friendship struck a nerve. Underneath the playful sheen of a raunchy teen comedy, Superbad spoke to the challenges of an unknowable future and the tectonic shifts that crackle in the multitudinous friendships you’ve curated over the years. A few days after Superbad, I left for college.
Ironically, my little sister is graduating from high school in just a few weeks and – by some twist of moviemaking fate – she and her graduating class of 2019 will soon be privy to their own “off to college” coming-of-age tribute to friendship and growing pains masquerading as a raunchy teen comedy. (It almost genuinely makes me feel bad for the previous generation, those who graduated in the late 90s and had but American Pie to look at as their beacon of sexual angst and next-step insecurity.) Booksmart, directed by Olivia Wilde and penned by a small legion of female writers including Susanna Fogel (The Spy Who Dumped Me), Emily Halpern (Black-ish), Sarah Haskins (Good Girls), and Katie Silberman (Isn’t It Romantic), is by all means a play-by-play swipe of the Evan Goldberg comedy hit, with a feminine spin. Beyond the basic premise of two BBFs who chase down a graduation party to get up in their crushes, there are individual defining moments airlifted into Booksmart, like eventually throwing up on said crush and non-truths told about future plans, that make the similarities impossible to ignore. But despite being a virtual clone of Superbad, Wilde’s spiritual redux still works magic in its own right thanks in no small part to the performances from Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12) and Beanie Feldstein (Ladybird).
Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein) are the closest of buds. They share coordinated dance moves, they shower each other with compliments, they each pray at the altar of strong, powerful women like Michelle Obama and Malala. They’re OG study buddies 4 life and though this has cultivated a bedrock of friendship with a shared goal of dedication to study and CV, they haven’t really gotten a taste of the extra-circulars that are keg stands, hook-ups, and bong rips. When the studious duo realize that, despite not hyper-focusing their every waking moment on academia, their peers are also bound for prestigious universities, the two friends embark on a quest to finally get an A in partying.
The film succeeds not in the individual sidebars that pock their chase for the perfect party but in the depth of ensemble characters that it develops along the way. Everyone has a role to play and even the token weirdo characters are afforded empathy and depth, which other less emotionally-involved comedies would give the shaft. From Richie Rich-type Jared (Skyler Gisondo) to the promiscuously-nicknamed AAA (Molly Gordon), known for giving “roadside assistance” (if you catch the drift), slacker Theo (Eduardo Franco) to the involved and aptly named Ms. Fine (Jessica Williams), Wilde’s film soars on the back of this wonderfully realized ensemble, and from the performances down to the oddly-specific but still-universal way these characters are written, they are the lifeblood of the enterprise.
From a more technical standpoint, the movie impresses equally. From the screaming soundtrack that runs the gambit from Lizzo to Discovery, Salt-N-Pepa to Alanis Morissette, there’s no needle drop that doesn’t absolutely slap. Likewise, the artistically-charged cinematography from Jason McCormick manages some really impressive shots for a comedy film, notably one where openly gay but sexually untested Amy hides underwater, the hazy visual medium perfectly communicating her self-doubt and insecurities in a rare moment of exposure.
So I don’t know if my kid sister and her generation will glom onto Booksmart in quite the same way that me and mine did with Superbad but I would genuinely hope so. This is a broad appeal comedy that feels generational. One that realistically captures the weird idiosyncrasies of female friendship, bottles it up and sells it for the price of a movie ticket. It may not be perfect, and it sure does feel like a Superbad gender-bender, but it still passes with flying colors.
CONCLUSION: Two nerds walk into a rager in Olivia Wilde’s largely wonderful salvo to the unbreakable bonds of childhood friendship, one that openly apes former teen coming-of-age comedies but works in spite of that. And just like their studious characters, this is Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein’s coming out party.
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