It’s obvious that Olivia Wilde loves teen movies because her 2019 directorial debut plays like a love letter to the genre. Booksmart, which tells the story of over-achieving BFFs Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) frantically trying to rewrite their high-school script the night before graduation, is as heartfelt as the most earnest John Hughes moments, as smart as Clueless and as viscerally funny as any 2000s gross-out comedy.
I also love teen movies. I return to them often when I want the screen equivalent of a hug; they are steeped in irresistible nostalgia, if only because we have all experienced the awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence. This is the gloriously predictable nature of the genre: by definition the films are all about young people undergoing the personal development necessary for the monumental transition from childhood to adulthood. The fancy word for this is “liminality” – the state of being in between, on the precipice of life’s next phase. We all made it through, and seeing that play out on screen is a welcome reminder that there is always cause for optimism.
Booksmart offers additional comfort in the nostalgia of the teen-movie legacy it lovingly pays tribute to. Even the set-up – Molly and Amy vowing to make up for years of lost partying the night before graduation – recalls other teen narratives about addressing a perceived lack before college, most famously American Pie’s virginity pledge. It also shares narrative DNA with Superbad (and literal DNA – Superbad star Jonah Hill is Feldstein’s brother).
But Booksmart goes beyond pastiche, pushing established genre conventions and speaking directly to (and of) today’s teens. At once reassuringly traditional and utterly progressive, it is a truly perfect teen movie.
Experimenting with drugs is standard teen-movie fare, but here it leads to a hallucination that sees the pair morph into stop-motion Barbies and face the ethical dilemma of loving their impossibly flawless plastic bodies. There are the awkward attempts to talk to a crush that we’ve seen a million times, but here it just happens to be a girl that Amy is pursuing.
The naturalised queerness in the film extends to Amy’s tender and hilarious bathroom liaison, which fulfils the requisite sexual exploration. The scene also aligns Booksmart with a distinguished list of female-directed teen movies, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Coming Soon and The Edge of Seventeen, that unflinchingly and authentically explore girls’ sexual experiences.
Reflecting a general cultural shift towards prioritising and celebrating friendships, and the popularity of devoted BFF duos like Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana, Booksmart’s central love story is the platonic one between Molly and Amy. This shouldn’t feel revolutionary, but I still well up every time I see two young women on screen adoring each other rather than competing.
If all this sounds woke, it absolutely is. Wokeness runs through the film, from the casting diversity to the girls’ staunch feminism. It’s strange that I feel the need to add a caveat at this point – Don’t let that put you off! – because the best teen movies have always preached tolerance in their breakdown and ultimate rejection of high-school stereotypes. Booksmart just takes it further by redressing the more insidious social prejudices that run through so much Hollywood content. It also uses the challenges of extreme wokeness as the basis for some of its funniest moments, happily obliterating the myth that progressive politics and humour are mutually exclusive.
The combination of nostalgia and feminism makes Booksmart an immediate win for me, and a perfect salve for something as unsettling as a global pandemic. Rewatching the film during Melbourne’s second lockdown, though, I was struck by a different kind of familiarity. I’m not the first to suggest that the pandemic represents a liminal period; we are collectively suspended in an unprecedented limbo, trying to figure out how to prepare for the next phase (that mythical “post-Covid world”) without knowing when it will happen or what it will look like. It’s a global adolescence, of sorts, which is possibly more terrifying than the virus itself.
Even if our liminal period feels depressingly closer to the detention of The Breakfast Club than the joyous revelry of Booksmart, the lessons bestowed upon Molly and Amy – to embrace tolerance and hold your best friends close – will surely also serve us well, no matter what lies ahead.
• Booksmart is streaming now on Binge