For every generation, there's a teen comedy that defines it. Booksmart -- about female best friends who discover on the eve of high school graduation that while they were busy studying, their party-happy classmates were racking up life experiences while also being accepted to Ivy League colleges -- is poised to become that era-defining comedy for Gen Z.
Booksmart's director Olivia Wilde (her first film behind the camera) and its stars Beanie Feldstein (Molly) and Kaitlyn Dever (Amy), fire off names of some of their favorite classic comedies, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Clueless, and Mean Girls. Like those films renowned for capturing the essence of high school in the decade in which they were made, Booksmart features a central love story that is very of-the-moment. Although it's not between the prom queen and the rebel but between female best friends Molly and Amy (the latter of whom is gay).
Amid belly laughs, madcap energy embodied especially by Billie Lourde's unhinged, omnipresent Gigi, and a montage that will make audience members long to be hit in the face with water balloons, the film taps into the ethos of a sexually and gender-fluid generation that refuses to define itself with labels. If a premiere screening to a packed house of 1,100 people at Austin's South by Southwest festival earlier this year is any indication, Booksmart (in theaters on Memorial Day weekend) is about to be a box office smash.
"The critical response is really so wonderful and the audience responses are wonderful, but it's the chance to see people personally affected by it that has been the most rewarding part for me so far," Wilde says of a question and answer session at SXSW where audience members shared how they related to the characters, like Feldstein's driven valedictorian.
"There's one woman that I'll never forget, she came to the mic and she started to speak. She said she loved the film and then she started getting emotional. She stopped herself and she was crying and she said, I just feel so seen. I was valedictorian at my school, I went up to make the speech at my graduation, I looked in the audience and realized I knew no one," Wilde says.
In the vein of The Breakfast Club, Booksmart unfolds primarily over a single truncated time frame. In this case, the central story begins on the last day of school and runs through the pre-graduation bashes and into the ceremony the next day. Written by a quorum of women writers including Katie Silberman, Susanna Fogel, Emily Halpern, and Sarah Haskins, Booksmart not only forgoes the central heterosexual love story of films like Pretty in Pink and Say Anything in favor of depicting Molly and Amy's abiding platonic friendship, it eschews the cliques cemented by those films. Gone are the mean girls, the jocks, the burnouts, and the band geeks (although Noah Galvin and Austin Crute play a deliciously overly-committed queer couple of drama kids). Instead, Booksmart levels the field of cliques to a world of teens who partied, played beer pong, gave and got blowjobs in cars, and experimented with drugs but who still got into good schools.
Meanwhile, Amy and Molly focused on grades while Molly planned her life all the way to the Supreme Court, like her hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
"Molly is the one that is ostracizing herself in this sort of narrative of a holier-than-thou or better-than-you," Feldstein says of her character. "What she learns throughout this film is that she's really smart, but she hasn't been that wise. She really learns not to judge and she learns that the whole time she was anticipating other people judging her she was the one judging them. Any time there's judgment, it's fueled by insecurity.
"What I loved about this film is that it's celebrating what everyone can bring to the table in such a beautiful and unique way and then hopefully people's insecurities will kind of fall by the wayside."
While Booksmart's refusal to critique its characters is refreshing, its depiction of a gay teen in a leading role in a mainstream teen comedy -- where being gay isn't the point -- is also a first. Teen comedies from decades past included queer-coded roles. What burgeoning women-loving-woman growing up in the '80s wasn't into Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful or Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club? Clueless and Mean Girls introduced gay male characters, although not leads. And last year's Love Simon and Alex Strangelove were about gay teens who eventually came out during the course of those films.
"The thing that attracted me most to this film is the fluidity of everyone's sexuality in the movie. It's so beautiful that no one is just one thing in Booksmart and no one is put in a box," Dever says of playing Amy. "It's a really important thing to ask an audience to not judge people as much as you would have in the past and maybe look at the world in a different way. It will make a lot of people feel vulnerable and, again, feel really seen because of that. Booksmart really does represent so honestly the generation that I am living in right now."
Dever may play the gay character, but Wilde and Feldstein have a stake in the story of a queer girl who's never been kissed but has her first sexual encounter with another girl on the night before graduation.
Wilde played the benchmark queer character of Alex on The OC in the early 2000s, and she says she's aware of how important that was to queer women.
"I've had a lot of women tell me it helped them kind of discover themselves, or find some sort of comfort, or even help them with conversations with their families coming out," Wilde says.
"Having been a part of that in what feels now like ancient history, I wanted to help create content that could make other people feel seen and I really appreciated how this script already contained this character when I inherited it -- that the Amy character was gay and it was not the whole point," she says, crediting Silberman with enriching the character and Dever with taking her "to the next level."
For Feldstein, who spoke openly about her relationship with a woman during the SXSW Q&A, the film provides a depiction of queer representation that would have been meaningful when she was younger.
"The more leading characters we have that are queer, queer in different ways, and queer in their own way, is genuinely important," says Feldstein, who identified as queer herself in a recent panel with The Advocate. "The more representation the better. It's not that I needed to see this film or that I was repressing anything at all. I just fell in love with my girlfriend because I'm in love with her, but more representation is nothing but a beautiful thing on this Earth and the more people can relate to something, maybe the more that they can find themselves in it."
Booksmart opens in theaters nationwide on May 24.