Esme Douglas
May 31, 2019 12:19 pm
Annapurna Pictures

When I was a teenager in the late aughts, movies like Juno, Ghost World, and Superbad were almost sacred to me. Their worlds didn’t exactly resemble mine, but they still felt like survival guides. Their protagonists were flawed and alienated, but through their friendships and wit, they made high school seem fun and bearable (something I was desperate for it to be). Most importantly, the characters felt like actual teenagers—not cultural reference bots spouting slang tested by ancient studio executives and played by 30-year-old actors, which often was, and sadly is, the norm. Creating a teen movie that will stand the test of time is a tricky formula that requires the film authentically adding to and reflecting the current youth culture at the same time.

That’s why it feels so exciting that today’s teens get something as fun and expertly crafted as Booksmart.

The newly released film is Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, and stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Denver as Molly and Amy, two studious Ivy League-bound high school seniors. The two best friends decide to spend their last night before graduation showing their class that they can party.

And it seems almost criminal that there aren’t hundreds of movies that give teenage girls the care and attention that Booksmart does.

Coming-of-age movies, at their best, reflect all the glowing potential and universal pitfalls of being young, so then what does it mean that young women are rarely ever the protagonists in these stories?

What does it mean that they are even more rarely given a personality beyond tired tropes? Luckily, Booksmart leapfrogs over all of these issues and creates something that feels almost totally new. Both flawed nerds, Molly is goal-oriented to the point of being dismissive and condescending, while the equally successful Amy is her timid foil. But the film takes great pains to show that these “flaws” are actually just protective armor worn by the young women, and don’t diminish their more admirable traits. In fact, their best qualities shine brightest within their friendship. They are both blindly loyal and protective of each other. When Amy learns Molly has a crush on an unattainable popular boy, she supports her without question. “He’d be so lucky to be a footnote in your story,” Amy tells Molly.

While Molly and Amy’s friendship feels magical and symbiotic in a way that is only possible in high school, their inevitable conflicts elevate the film. Though Booksmart has understandably been compared to Superbad, it also seems to be a cousin of Frances Ha because of its dissection of female friendship. Teen movies rarely feature positive or supportive friendships between young women, and even more rarely are these friendships written with the complexity to evolve and change. Even the strongest of high school friendships can seem transient by definition, but Molly and Amy’s bond is challenged when Amy decides she’s done being bossed around by Molly. Their fight is raw without being catty and, without spoiling anything, actually seems to be for the best.

While watching the two protagonists fight, I realized how rare it was to watch a film centered on a teenage female friendship that’s never sidelined for a romantic relationship.

Their friendship, buoyed by an airtight script and Feldstein and Denver’s chemistry and talent, is the heart of the film, but Wilde’s direction lets their world feel whole. In one scene, Amy is about to follow her crush, Ryan, into the pool at a house party. A close shot of Amy lingers as Perfume Genius’s “Slip Away” begins to play. As the music swells, Amy enters the pool, and we follow her swimming underwater in a sea of bodies. The scene is mostly wordless, yet Wilde’s directorial choices heighten the exciting and terrifying newness of Amy’s sexuality.

Wilde’s care for her characters radiates throughout the film. Amy and Molly are sexual without being hypersexualized. They casually joke about masturbation, and Amy is a rare example of an out queer teen character who actually gets to have some fun. All of the characters in Booksmart have surprising depth; no one is a simple stereotype. The ostentatious rich kids are lonely and maladjusted. The “slutty” girl is going to Yale. Amy’s heartless bully has a crush. Wilde seems to be capturing something essential about Gen Z, while also suggesting a more empathetic future.

More than anything, Booksmart made me wish that movies about teen girls were always made by people who actually like teen girls.

It’s exciting to me that young women will absorb Booksmart in the way that I absorbed Clueless growing up. I think Booksmart will become just as timeless, but the movie does seem to speak to Gen Z directly. The strict labels and cliques of  ’80s teen films are blurred or totally dissolved; queer girls and girls who aren’t skinny take center stage without having to be self-deprecating.We never doubt Amy and Molly’s potential, mainly because their love for each other reminds us of their greatness. All the young women in the film feel self-possessed and singular.

As a teen, I hoped to find characters in movies that could compare to the amazing young women I knew in real life. Booksmart would’ve blown my mind in high school when I was a shy national merit scholar (sorry), and honestly, it wasn’t any less satisfying now that I’m old (mid-twenties). It is a film worthy of Gen Z’s progressive mindset, and I hope it’s only the very beginning of an era marked by thoughtful teen films with fully-realized protagonists.

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