The “teen movie” is the Baby Boomer of film genres, harkening back to the James Dean classic “Rebel Without a Cause” and the concurrent cultural emergence of the “young adult” designation. It’s a genre that is perennially reborn, continually updated to fit the zeitgeist. Films like “The Breakfast Club,” “10 Things I Hate About You” and “Mean Girls” each defined their own generation, and “Booksmart,” the feature directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, has already been deemed Gen Z’s coming-of-age classic. It’s a generous yet deserving title for the all-female-helmed film, which successfully renovates the genre while staying true to its historical foundations, even as those roots are increasingly being called into question.
“Booksmart” follows best friends and academic overachievers Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) on the eve of their graduation day, destined for Yale and Columbia, respectively, to pursue futures they consider to be well-deserved. Their all-around nerdiness earns them a mild disdain from their fellow students, one that up until then had been deftly deflected by Molly’s individual superiority complex. But when Molly finds out that the party-going classmates she’d once derided as irresponsible and dense are heading to schools of similar caliber as her own, she vows to spend her last night as a senior catching up on all the sex, drugs and fun she’d missed out on during high school. Amy, for her part, is drawn into Molly’s scheme by the glimpse of a potential hook-up with sweet skater girl Ryan (Victoria Ruesga). Their late night search for the hottest grad party hosted by cool guy Nick (Mason Gooding) ends up taking them on an odyssey across Los Angeles, and they come to realize that the classmates they’d once disparaged are much more compassionate than the rumor mill would have them believe.
“Booksmart” sounds like any other teen movie, but its Damien Chazelle-esque visual ambition (including one fantasy musical scene) and its all-encompassing commitment to character are what strip it from tradition. Each character, including the adorkable rich kid Jared (Skyler Gisondo) and resident hip teacher Mrs. Fine (Jessica Williams) convincingly carries their own mini arc, jam-packing each moment with fervor and a fresh iteration of comedy. The film also carries the mark of a new generation: Students are surprisingly empathetic and generous, treating each other with a due respect that feels like an optimistic vision of a future world. When two jocks launch into a criticism of Molly in their high school’s all-gender bathroom, one half-expects that they’ll be berating her body or her looks. In fact, one of them admits that he finds her attractive and instead condemns her admittedly uptight personality. One hook-up scene in particular is refreshingly communicative and open in a way that is reminiscent of the ongoing cultural conversation among younger people about sex and consent. And Molly’s eagerness to cheer on openly gay Amy throughout the latter’s romantic escapades, without ever once asking whether Amy is into her, is unexpectedly open-minded and meaningful. It’s as though the film’s entire character lineup grew up with many of the values that young people discuss and deliberate today, and they’re now demonstrating the best version of that ideology in practice.
Nonetheless, the film’s semi-allegiance to teen movie tradition has garnered it a small handful of critics. BuzzFeed’s Alison Willmore argues that the film “has a blindspot” when it comes to class, and it’s a criticism that holds some water, particularly bearing its weight when Molly realizes that her classmates cruised into equally good colleges on half as much effort. Although the adage that our fellow human beings are often richer than we give them credit to be is inoffensive and timely, it arises from a bout of situational comedy that feels somewhat detached from most teenagers’ reality. Granting that college admissions is far from a transparent meritocratic process, many students who do get into “elite” schools work much like Molly and Amy did: very, very hard. This means that when the respective valedictorian and salutatorian’s supposedly lax and party-hard classmates’ finally disclose where, exactly, they got into, the scene embroils the loopholes and backdoors of the recent college admissions scandal more than it does Molly’s ego. When one skater kid who demonstrates no athletic prowess or interest admits that he’ll be playing soccer at Stanford in the fall, one wonders how fairly he was recruited. For the Georgetown-bound yet supposed class clown Nick, there’s the lingering question of whether his parents were wealthy alums of the school. And then there’s the further point that the film’s larger maxim can be fulfilled without its minor characters ever needing to go to these “elite” schools. They can retain — and Molly can still come to appreciate — their empathy and maturity without their attending Harvard or Yale.
However, despite its rightful acknowledgement, I would argue the larger ignorance of class issues that Willmore points out in “Booksmart” is, with the exception of choice films like “Lady Bird,” inherent to the “teen movie” genre as a whole. The archetypal “teen movie,” whether it be of the classic John Hughes oeuvre or the more recent John Green ilk, almost always guarantees a suburban setting fitted with the rhythm of high school halls and the inordinate parties of the weekends. These mainstays tend to implicate a certain middle class demographic, and “Booksmart” is no exception to the rule. To critique the film with a socioeconomic lens is to critique its genre. Regardless, a distancing from class does not mean that the paradigmatic “teen movie” cannot offer up something timely and valuable in 2019. The veering twists and turns of Molly and Amy’s last night as seniors — and the progressive reality it imagines — proves that a coming-of-age classic can be relevant and fresh in an era where most other Hollywood traditions are being called into question.
“Booksmart” visually and narratively reinvigorates the “teen movie” genre, and its optimistic outlook on the adolescent world feels like a well wishing to a younger generation. Wilde and screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman endow their characters with an empathy and self-awareness that reads as an implicit entrusting of America’s future in the hands of Gen Z. Despite its minor flaws, ‘Booksmart’ gives you reason to dream of what’s to come and to appreciate the joys of what’s right here.