'Booksmart' Proves That Raunchy Teen Comedies Don't Have to Be Offensive to Be Funny
Step aside, 'Superbad'—McLovin's got nothing on Beanie Feldstein's new high school rager classic.
Photo by Annapurna Pictures
Before doing anything together, best friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) gas each other up. They gaze deeply into one another's eyes and deliver mantras worthy of any best friendship. "How are you so beautiful?" one of them asks, the other responding in kind, creating a back and forth loop until they're screaming compliments at each other. This ritual kicks off the pairs' last day of high school, and the two follow it by breaking into an impromptu dance party by Amy's parked car.
This is the heart of Booksmart, Olivia Wilde's directorial debut. The film is what we could call a rumspringa high school comedy: a one last hurrah before graduation, a one last night to make sure you leave without an ounce of FOMO. And like other films of its ilk— Superbad, American Pie, Can't Hardly Wait, or even last year's Blockers comes to mind immediately—it focuses on a nerdy best friend pair who realize high school could have been more, if only they had the courage to wild out and take risks. In Booksmart, Molly has this revelation after learning that her peers also got into the same fancy, competitive colleges she did without having to sacrifice their social lives. She decides that she and Amy will attend a party that night—and not just any party, but the rager she learns her crush will also be attending.
On its face, the film’s premise may sound tired, and also risky. Those vulgar, horny, last-night-of-high school comedies have entered treacherous waters as Hollywood has evolved in the era of Trump’s presidency and #MeToo. We’ve collectively reevaluated comedy at the expense of marginalized characters; it’s no longer considered acceptable to rely on jokes that ridicule non-white, fat, or LGBTQ characters, or to portray romantic interests as inert objects of sexual conquest. Such themes have so long been the mainstay of high school films that the genre has had to reckon with the poor aging of its classics.
But Booksmart makes a critical revision to this trend, updating the high school graduation comedy to fit 2019 by daring to celebrate the intelligence, mutual respect, and mindful sex positivity of its characters. Amy and Molly aren't the butt of a cruel joke about their own unpopularity; they cherish their friendship, elevate each other, and communicate in a series of inside jokes that are as heartwarming as they are earnestly funny. They share a single set of headphones in order to watch porn together on a smartphone to prepare themselves for hooking up. They have a safe word that each of them gets to use once a year in order to invoke unconditional best friend support. The word is (drum roll, please) Malala—the name of the young Nobel Laureate and Pakistani activist.
While sexual frustration is a ubiquitous plot point in nearly all teen-centric entertainment, Booksmart depicts fumbling hookups as a universal rite of passage that women get to pursue, too. And though there may be larger hurdles for socially ostracized "nerd" types, the inherent awkwardness of courting someone and trying to smash bodies is way funnier in and of itself than a bunch of bros urging each other to "seal the deal." In a hilarious, egregious mismatch of expectation and reality, Molly intensely daydreams a several-minute-long ballroom dance sequence with her crush, only to be friendzoned during a game of beer pong in reality.
The visibility of queerness in Booksmart also adds a new sense of complexity to an already confusing coming-of-age moment. Amy—who is queer and deeply shy—struggles to interpret her cool-girl crush Ryan's casual touches. When Ryan tells Amy, "I'm so glad you came out," Amy misinterprets her remark to be commentary about her coming out as queer, rather than small talk about coming to the party. (Whoops.) And the film’s hookup scenes benefit from this same dose of empathy, and a refusal to turn women into drunken objects to be coerced and conquered. Of course, even with clear consent, there are plenty of opportunities for miscommunication; consider lines like—and I'm paraphrasing here—"It feels alright, but I don't think that's the hole you think it is."
Respecting your characters also doesn't mean stripping this genre of its signature crassness. Booksmart does vulgarity with debilitating precision, via subject matter rarely told through a female perspective. In a moment of confidence, Molly tells Amy about the time she gave herself a UTI by trying to masturbate with an electric toothbrush. Amy shares that she apparently masturbates by humping a stuffed panda. Much like female-centric coming-of-age films like Lady Bird (the high school indie darling where Feldstein cut her teeth), Booksmart dares to embrace the realer, raunchier moments of high school girl horniness. These 2019-facing adjustments update the last-night-of-high-school comedy category in just about every way.
This isn't to say every theme and trope has been rewritten. Why fix something that isn't broken? Like other iconic high school films, Booksmart plays on awkward teacher-student relationships, trapping Molly and Amy in a Lyft that happens to be driven by their own principal. It highlights awkward tension points in parent-child relationships. It also sends Molly and Amy on a really bad trip—the drug isn't specified, but the point is made—where they think they're literal Barbie dolls.
Most importantly, Booksmart leaves the impression that nothing that happened (or didn't happen) in those four years holds a candle to the strength of the friendship at the film's core. Through thick and thin, hookups, breakups, and fights, Molly and Amy always have each other's back—and that is just as it should be. Watch it with your best friend. And bring tissues.
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