United Artists’ “Booksmart” is the latest raunchy R-rated teen comedy to hit theaters. For the past couple of weeks, the movie’s been received with overwhelmingly positive reviews across the board. The director is former starlet Olivia Wilde, who currently fancies herself a filmmaker. Fortunately for her (and her film’s viewers), she’s not bad. She has potential with the way she stages, frames, and styles sequences, and she excels at letting her cast deliver naturally. But how is the script?
As someone who spent middle school, high school, and even college obsessed with teen movies, I know the formulas. There are traditionally two types of teen comedies. First, there are the ones loosely based on classic literature: “Clueless” (1995), “She’s All That” (1999), “10 Things I Hate About You” (1999), “Cruel Intentions” (1999), “A Cinderella Story” (2004), “She’s the Man” (2006), and so on. We also have the typical “day in the life” setting, where we get teen adventures through a brief 12- to 48-hour period, which usually occurs on a special day like a birthday or graduation. This trope is most famously featured in “American Graffiti” (1973), “Sixteen Candles” (1984), “Dazed and Confused” (1993), “Superbad” (2007), and now “Booksmart.”
Wilde’s directorial debut has been getting what appears to be intentional comparisons to “Superbad” thanks to its marketing and the line: “From the people who brought you Superbad.” But hold up! Instead of two boys, it’s two girls. Just like how “Now and Then” (1995) was “Stand by Me” (1986) with tween girls instead of boys. Or is it?
“Booksmart” sure has a lot of the gimmicks and plot devices I’ve already seen in other teen films. This time, though, we get two girls, and one is overweight (Molly played by Beanie Feldstein) while the other one is a lesbian (Amy played by Kaitlyn Dever). Another “Superbad” connection is that Feldstein is the younger sister of actor Jonah Hill, who, of course, is familiar because she broke through with the earlier teen flick a decade ago.
The plot of “Booksmart” goes something like this: Molly and Amy are best friends on the last day of high school before they have to separate for college and summer travels abroad. But before the final bell of the day, Molly gets the revelation that they need to party hard once together before officially leaving home. The rest of the movie is centered on the girls’ hijinks in search of the hottest house party. Billie Lourd plays the bizarre but charming rich girl on campus, and the adults in the film are comedy vets like Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow, who both play roles as Amy’s parents, and Wilde’s real-life husband Jason Sudeikis, who plays the school principal.
While the previous “day in the life” teen features were either set in the past (“American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused”) or used retro music cues for direction (“Superbad” and parts of “Sixteen Candles”), “Booksmart” is as contemporary as it can get. The soundtrack is an earworm of catchy EDM and trip-hop, with a score by Dan the Automator, but the biggest contemporary component of this film is the LGBQT and racial representation among the cast, to the point where it almost felt fairytale-ish to me. Granted, I haven’t been in high school for over a decade, but I found it hard to believe that this academic, progressive utopia didn’t have at least one ignorant bully or jerk in class. Then again, realism has always been fittingly lacking in teen movies without much struggle to disbelieve. What’s interesting is that the new coming-of-age picture tries to be both crude and inoffensive, unlike past R-rated teen romps, where they’re as subversively racy as possible, and ultimately ended up effecting how well the movies have aged.
Wilde was smart to have her directorial debut be a formula that will likely work, because in doing so she gave herself more freedom to focus on her filming technique and work with the actors and characters. One has to wonder, though, why a movie with such a standard plot line had so many writers – four, in fact – on board. Most of the story elements in “Booksmart” were too familiar for me to completely enjoy, but it was still intriguing to see Wilde attempt to update a familiar tale for modern teenagers.