There isn’t much new thematic territory left in the femme teen sex comedy template for Booksmart to expand upon. Blockers and Wetlands have already pushed the potential shock of the genre’s gross-out sex & drugs gags to their furthest post-Pink Flamingos extremes. The Edge of Seventeen has already saddled its protagonist with the brutal “Wait a minute, I’m the asshole” epiphany in its respective us vs. them high school clique dynamics. The To Do List has even done a little of both while also telegraphing Booksmart’s exact narrative conceit: an overachieving high school valedictorian squeezes in a concentrated, hedonistic excess of sex & drugs experimentation after graduation to better prepare for the upcoming social challenges of college. Speaking as an enthusiastic fan of this genre, it would have been more than okay by me if all Booksmart did was echo these previous accomplishments while plugging in new jokes & characters into the already well-worn template. Instead, it defies the odds by offering two new variations on this femme teen sex comedy theme: a comedic voice distinctive to Generation Z and more Gay Content than the genre usually makes room for. This film didn’t need to be exceptional to be successful, but it uses those two variations to carve out its own new grooves within its genre anyway.
Kaitlyn Dever & Beanie Feldstein star as two smug overachievers who lord an unearned sense of superiority over their more relaxed classmates, whom they perceive to be losers partying at the expense of their own futures. Horrified to discover that the very kids they’ve been slagging for being slackers have all gotten into prestigious colleges despite not being obsessed with schoolwork, the girls decide to catch up by cramming in an entire high school career’s worth of hedonism into one night. Booksmart is essentially a road trip movie from there, with the girls suffering wild run-ins with hard drugs, awkward sex, and weirdo strangers on their way to an epic class party. Everything about his age-old set up plays out exactly the way you’d expect, except that the tone is incredibly specific to the kids of Generation Z. The open-hearted empathy, ease with queer identity, social media expertise, and feedback loops of women-validating-women are all specific to Gen Z sensibilities and all welcome reassurances that the kids are more than alright. The tragedy of the protagonists’ decision to block out the rest of their class throughout high school as a preemptive defense tactic is that they were missing out on some really sweet kids with a lot of genuine good to offer. That’s a far cry from the high school clique dynamics of yesteryear, and it gives me a lot of hope for this generation that’s going to be picking up the scraps after our Millennial dysfunction.
Booksmart is not the most consistently hilarious example of the femme teen sex comedy, but it is one with an unusually effective emotional core – especially in how much screentime it affords queer teen identity. I also suspect that it’s a film that will only become funnier on rewatches, as the side characters’ individual quirks will already be in sharper relief. Like our protagonists, we initially see side characters as broad archetypes, so that the idiosyncrasies of their respective personae & performances don’t initially register. As we get to know the kids better, their one-liners & character arcs start earning much deeper belly laughs, so that most of the movie’s heart and humor initially feels corralled to its climactic pool party. That’s also where first-time director (and long-time actor) Olivia Wilde pours most of her filmmaking creativity, culminating in a few lengthy tracking shots that match the emotional tension & catharsis of the moment. It’s a sequence that clarifies so many themes and personalities that are only gently prodded throughout the rest of the film that I feel like I immediately owed it a rewatch. Not only would that give me more time to hang out with the tech-savvy sweethearts of Gen Z, but it’ll also be an easy way to support a genre that I love with some minor financial backing, so that maybe more of these films can get made in the future – whether or not they feel the need to reinvent the wheel.