Taking the teen comedy into 2019

We spoke with the stars of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, which plays by the rules by ignoring them.

In the abstract, Booksmart has a lot in common with Superbad: it’s about two nerdy friends on their last night before graduation and the shenanigans they get into in the greater Los Angeles area. It even stars the younger sister of the star of the first film! But a lot has changed in the dozen or so years since Superbad came out. A lot of its humour has aged badly (the film’s co-writer, Evan Goldberg, has even surmised that by the time his own children are the age of the protagonists, it will be unwatchable) and its representation of a generation is… well, a little short-sighted.

Booksmart is very much in the image of the current generation: raunchy but inclusive, wild but tender and open to a variety of experiences. (Who you’re sexually attracted to is so wide-open in this world that one character’s coming-out is admitting their attraction to… a garden-variety jock bonehead.) Olivia Wilde makes her directorial debut with the film, which is one of the funniest into-the-night comedies since… well, Superbad.

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have spent their entire high school existence focusing on their grades in order to get into good colleges and secure their future. On the last day of school, they discover to their dismay that their stereotypically hard-partying peers have also gotten into good colleges. With only one evening to reclaim the high school experience they feel they’ve lost, Amy and Molly focus their efforts on making it to one party all the way across town — a party to which they do not have the address and where all of their crushes, enemies and other sundry weirdos are also invited.

Heavily buzzed since its Sundance premiere, Booksmart has been out in limited release for close to a month. When I spoke with its stars Dever and Feldstein on the morning of the film’s wide release, we estimate that they have given nearly 1,000 interviews about the film.

“It’s genuinely such an honour to get to talk about this movie and share it with the world,” says Feldstein. “It’s so fun and joyous and celebratory, but also so thoughtful and heartfelt. It’s just a joy.”

It’s difficult not to touch on how different the film feels from its male-centric ilk, even if it more or less hits all of the same points (loss of virginity, accidentally tripping on drugs, crashing cars, realizing that someone you thought was one way actually has much more depth than you expected). This has pushed a lot of the film’s most ardent fans to argue that it’s not for everybody — and that older, whiter, maler audiences need not apply. While it’s true that the film, like all films about teenagers, made me feel a million years old (I’m now almost twice as old as I was when I graduated), the story it tells is timeless.

“I think this movie is made for everybody,” says Dever. “A lot of people from older generations love this movie quite a lot. Everybody loves this movie! I think that’s what’s so great about Olivia. She really wanted everyone to see themselves in this movie, no matter what age you are or what social group you were in in high school. I think the movie really does that — it’s not just for women or young people. It’s a film for everybody.”

Most films about high school have a sort of nostalgic or revisionist approach — even if they are set in the present day, they’re about the filmmakers’ idea of their high-school days. What’s perhaps most remarkable about Booksmart is that, despite Wilde and the four credited screenwriters being in their late 30s, it represents the current high school experience in a way that’s even surprising considering the time it generally takes between the completion of a screenplay and a release in theatres. I asked Dever (22) and Feldstein (25) if they ever felt a desire or need to be “youth advisers” on set.

“Absolutely not,” says Dever.

“It was crazy!” says Feldstein. “Katie Silberman and Olivia Wilde, our writer and director, are so in touch and engaged and have so much respect for this generation that we were learning from them. They were so uniquely grounded in what was going on in high schools today. It was remarkable to watch!”

“Katie Silberman is one of the most talented and knowledgeable people I have met in my life,” says Dever. “And I say that with full honesty. She is just so brilliant and had so much passion for this movie that I can’t imagine anyone else being the writer on this movie. Anyone else. She captures this generation so beautifully. Same for Olivia — she has such an understanding for young people. I don’t think you have to be young to relate to young people and know what that feels like. It’s a universal feeling. It’s a feeling that you will feel forever.”

Wilde also infuses the film with more style and weirdness than we’ve come to expect from teen comedies. Though there are the requisite montages papered with wall-to-wall hip hop and a bizarre sequence in which the protagonists are dosed with psychedelics and become grotesque Barbie doll versions of themselves, there are also some surprising touches, like a mid-party argument that slowly becomes inaudible and a beautiful extended underwater sequence. Booksmart is both a wild, vulgar into-the-night escapade and a heartfelt exploration of teenage co-dependency.

“I think that’s really all because of Olivia and the way that she directed this film,” says Feldstein. “She never wanted us to be ‘going for the joke’ or trying to land a comedic moment or trying to land a heartfelt or upsetting moment. It was always about what was the most authentic way to shoot this moment and enact this moment. It was always about going for authenticity and clarity — it was never about a specific vibe or tone or humour, but about being authentic. It’s a movie that’s entirely a comedy but entirely rooted in an emotional relationship.”

“In the past, I think you would introduce stereotypes in a film, and then the stereotypes would stay the stereotypes,” adds Dever. “You wouldn’t see any other side of them. I think the reason why this movie is as fresh as it is is because it shows the stereotypes, it introduces them, and we slowly get to know them as we communicate with them and see a different side of them. Everybody is not one-dimensional.” ■

Booksmart is in theatres now. Watch the trailer here: