Booksmart, And The Generational Tradition It Follows (And Breaks)
Teen comedies are a staple of American cinema, starting way back in the 80’s with the John Hughes explosion and continuing all the way until today with Olivia Wilde’s excellent directorial debut, Booksmart.
That said, these movies tend to ebb and flow throughout the cultural consciousness, making their presence known in some years and completely disappearing in others. As I’m writing this, we’re in a bit of an upswing in quality teen movies, thanks in part to the efforts of streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu.
Booksmart falls into a subcategory of teen movies that I like to describe as “One Crazy Night” movies. George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973) was the first teen movie to utilize this idea, with those characters cruising the streets of southern California on the last day of summer vacation. Ferris Bueller was trying to have one last day of hooky before graduation. The 90’s had Empire Records, which had its teens fighting to keep their local record store from being bought by a big corporate franchise and (starting to see a pattern?) only having one night to do it.
Booksmart follows two very smart (duh) senior girls that have spent the entirety of their high school careers studying and making sure they get into a great college. After a world shattering realization that even the people who partied and had fun all throughout their four years are ALSO getting into those great schools, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) embark on a last-ditch effort to go and party, find love, and let loose the night before graduation.
I’d like to take this sub-category and specify it a little further, because Booksmart was not the first film to put forth this idea. It follows the schematics first put into place by movies like Can’t Hardly Wait and Superbad. Both of these films involve pairs of outsiders who never partied or had sex in high school and are now about to graduate. With the thought of heading off to college without experiencing those things looming overhead, these characters do everything in their power to have a good time, and possibly profess their love to a guy/girl that they’ve secretly had crushes on for years. And oh yeah, all of this needs to happen before the sun comes up. The parallels are certainly all there.
It’s also very interesting to think how this style of movie comes out almost every ten years or so, starting with Can’t Hardly Wait back in 1998, and Superbad following nearly a decade later in 2007. Almost like each generation of high school students get a movie like this. I was too young to see Can’t Hardly Wait when it came out, so that viewing came much later in life.
Superbad, however, has a much softer place in my heart. It was one of the very first R rated movies I ever snuck into. I have a distinct memory of buying a ticket for Rush Hour 3 and feeling a very strange mixture of guilt and excitement as I walked into that theater. As poorly as some aspects of that movie have aged, I still love Superbad and all the weird, memorable characters and situations Seth and Evan encounter that night.
Looking at Can’t Hardly Wait and Superbad through today’s cultural lens doesn’t really do them any favors. What it does do, however, is give us a pretty accurate snapshot of those decades. They are 100% products of their times, and that softens the blow a little bit, in my mind. Booksmart does a great job of being very specific in the same ways. It is very much a 2019 film, filled with tons of cultural references and jokes that will almost certainly age strangely in ten years or so until the next great teen movie comes out.
If you had told me the next great teen movie was going to be directed by Olivia Wilde, I might not have believed you. She proved me wrong. So, so, wrong. The directorial choices she makes throughout the movie are really impressive. It’s shot better than a teen comedy has any business being and it just oozes with style. The choice to have those two protagonists be girls in a genre traditionally dominated by sex crazed boys is so refreshing. Last year’s Blockers did something similar, and while it was much broader than Booksmart, it was still very entertaining and funny. I would have included it on this list because it also takes place throughout one night, but the story focuses just a LITTLE too much on the adults for my liking.
Wilde showed the world that girls can be just as vulgar and funny as the boys, and I’m hoping a new trend is starting. Give me more teen comedies involving guys AND girls. Literally everyone can relate to these films in some small way.
Booksmart is not perfect, by any means, but teen movies almost never are. Neither are teens, so maybe that makes sense. The archetypes and characters this genre uses are universal, and will continue to be relevant for years down the road.
There will always be outsiders in high school, and there will always be films made about those outsiders.
I’ll watch all of ‘em.