In a recent conversation about the impact of the current drive for diversity and inclusion in storytelling, I challenged the assumption that Hollywood is rehashing the same-old narratives (and arriving at the same-old conclusions) all while merely substituting a gender dynamic here or a racial identity there. It was easy to point out that Jordan Peele’s Get Out was something far more than a typical horror-thriller exercise, precisely because the race of its central character injected a whole new level of cultural and critical commentary on American history. The point earned easy and universal agreement.
The real stumbling block emerged when I revealed that I would be attending the opening screening of Booksmart, the directing debut of actress Olivia Wilde, which has been described as “a female version of Superbad.” Based on its trailer, the movie appears to be a run-of-the-mill teen comedy about a couple of nerdy friends — Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) — who after having spent their entire academic careers focused solely on gaining access to the top schools of their choice, decide to spend the night before graduation partying hard like everyone else.
By all accounts, the expectation would be that audiences could feel free to insert montages of kids drinking excessively, attempting quite rudely to deflower each other with abandon and facing off against bumbling police officers enroute to a morning-after graduation sequence where the class has united in a new awareness of their dawning humanity as they set off for the next stage of their lives.
Indeed, all of that may appear here, too, but Booksmart achieves a startling degree of specificity by granting us the pleasure of riding shotgun with these two young women; especially Molly, a surprisingly complex and gifted character who awakens to a heady stew of confusion and longing in this pivotal and inciting adolescent moment. She’s confronted by the possibility that she and Amy have tragically wasted their teenage years with their noses deeply pressed into books, while their peers enjoyed mythic bacchanals and arrived at the same destination: acceptance into top schools or job offers from major tech companies. Molly winds up questioning her whole approach to life and the hardcore mantras that fueled and sustained her along the way.
The genius of Molly’s persona is that this discovery leads her to do what she does best. She doubles down and browbeats Amy to join her on an absurd goal-driven quest to studiously party like it’s 2019. The great Superbad callback is that Feldstein, the actress playing Molly, happens to be the younger sister of Jonah Hill, one of the geek dudes from that smart and somewhat bookish mid-2000s teen comedy; she’s got her own brand of offbeat charm and dazzling wit, but Booksmart wisely lets her display dramatic chops in ways that Superbad didn’t quite do for Hill.
And it’s largely because of gender. The pain of Molly’s discovery — that she’s booksmart but lacks the ability to enjoy life’s simpler pleasures — creates a rich and untapped narrative wellspring. When teenage boys hit roadblocks in similar situations, you never get the sense that such wounds will permanently scar them. At most, they come across as superficial nicks and cuts that generate laughs as the boys get up and dust themselves off.
But here we worry about Molly, and to a lesser extent Amy, because there is the credible fear that they might not recover from this emotional damage. I felt the angst Feldstein delivered in several of these moments and was able to go a step further with her, imagining a more adult version of Molly, older and wiser, having achieved the long-term dreams and aspirations of her younger self, but hollowed out from the effort. The tears she cries in these teenage years lay the tracks for rivers of dissatisfaction down the road.
Thankfully the writing from Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins and Katie Silberman and Wilde’s hyper-attentive direction reveals the hopeful promise awaiting these two protagonists. They may not benefit from the same sheltered privilege of the boys in their set, but they know how to apply their smarts to steel themselves for what’s to come, and Feldstein, in particular, presents Molly as an over-achiever who now realizes that fun is a valuable gift that should be treasured.
(In theaters) (R) Grade: A