Look: Booksmart isn’t perfect.
It’s flawed, uneven, a little wobbly in parts, and often predictable, but it’s ultimately much more satisfying than the sum of its pieces. It is also repeatedly laugh-out-loud funny, and its best moments bring people together in surprising ways that turn out much better than you expect.
Sounds a lot like high school, doesn’t it?
As the first movie directed by actress Olivia Wilde (Tron: Legacy, Drinking Buddies), Booksmart is simple yet ambitious. It tells the story of Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), two high school seniors whose self-importance as the school’s highest achievers hits a snag when they realize they’re not the only ones who got into great colleges… they’re just the only ones who never had any fun along the way. When they discover the kids they looked down on the whole time were actually better at balancing schoolwork and play than they are, they make a pact to celebrate one epic night of partying before graduation day, so the world will know they’re smart and fun.
Naturally, everything goes very, very wrong.
Here are four big reasons why the storytelling in Booksmart works so well, and why it’s poised to earn its place among the greatest high school comedies of all-time.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for Booksmart!
Booksmart Feels Like Gen Z’s First Landmark Movie
One of the most striking things about Booksmart is the way its depiction of high schoolers feels so generationally different than any previous “school’s out forever” rom-com.
Yes, the quest-like plot and its story beats are similar to coming-of-age classics like Sixteen Candles and Superbad (which is Booksmart‘s closest spirtual comparison). And yes, the roots of its underdogs-on-top theme and its push-the-envelope sexual hijinks can be traced back to Weird Science, American Pie, 10 Things I Hate About You, Dazed and Confused, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
But Booksmart‘s big difference is in its characters.
All the recognizable high school character archetypes are still here — the nerds, the jocks, the stoners, the loners, and the eccentrics — but in Booksmart they’re also politically engaged, sexually fluid, preternaturally wise, and fundamentally compassionate.
Journalists and marketers keep telling us about all the ways Gen Z differs from previous generations in their politics, expectations, aspirations, and identities. But seeing these changes displayed on-screen in the form of characters who actively represent this cultural shift is powerful — and relatable.
Ironically, this hyper-modern aspect of Booksmart wasn’t always so prominent, because its script was written over a decade ago… sort of.
Book Smart first made a splash on The Black List (the annual list of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays) in 2009 before kicking around Hollywood for ten years without getting made. Originally written by by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins as the tale of two high achievers who realize the only thing they haven’t done in high school is find boyfriends, the story has since evolved into Molly and Amy’s search for something even more profound: themselves.
In 2014, screenwriter Susanna Fogel (who co-wrote and directed last year’s flawed-yet-fabulous The Spy Who Dumped Me) rewrote the original script and reimagined the character of Amy as a lesbian. That version got greenlit with Olivia Wilde attached to direct. But it wasn’t until writer Katie Silberman (Isn’t It Romantic, Netflix’s Set It Up) came aboard that the story finally got updated to be fully representative of Gen Z at the cusp of 2020.
No wonder Booksmart feels both modern and timeless: it’s channeling 40 years of genre classics through a decade of cultural revisions that kept digging deeper into the story’s underlying theme… which is:
“No One Really Knows Me”
Much like Greta Gerwig‘s 2017 low-key masterpiece Lady Bird — and The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink decades before it — Booksmart focuses on the frustrating disconnect between what kids are expected to be and who they really are.
But in Booksmart, there’s a twist: even the characters don’t really know who they are yet.
At least, not until push comes to shove and they have to start making choices.
Screenwriting guru Robert McKee teaches that character is revealed by the choices people make under pressure. In the case of Booksmart, Molly and Amy begin the story believing that they know who they are — they’re the girls who already made all the right choices — only to see their identities come crashing down on the eve of graduation.
First, Molly discovers that the kids she and Amy looked down on for being losers and washouts have actually gotten into colleges that are just as impressive as their own admissions to Yale and Columbia. This shakes Molly to her core, because she believed her booksmart nature was a rare gift that made her special. But if that’s not true… and if the other kids got into college even while partying and goofing off… could that possibly mean that Molly and Amy are… underachievers?
Clearly, in Molly’s mind, that does NOT compute. Obviously, the only answer is that Molly and Amy must now prove they’re equally good at partying… right?
Next, Molly and Amy start learning what really makes their classmates (and themselves) tick.
It turns out that obnoxious Gigi (Billie Lourd), overbearing Jared (Skyler Gisondo), bitchy Hope (Diana Silvers), brainless Nick (Mason Gooding), and promiscuous Triple A (Molly Gordon) all have a lot more going on under the surface than Molly or Amy ever gave them credit for. But the girls were so busy being judgmental during their quest to be “right” that they never bothered looking deeper.
Molly also starts to come to grips with the fact that the guy she’s attracted to is someone her brain knows she shouldn’t be attracted to, even though her body is overruling it.
But the biggest blow to their identities comes when Molly and Amy have a climactic argument and tell each other what they really think.
Amy accuses Molly of forever bullying her into doing things as her lackey and accomplice, while Molly asserts that Amy would never do anything at all if Molly never pushed her into it. This hurts even worse because they both know it’s true; they’ve become codependent. But when Amy reveals that she changed her college plans without telling Molly — that they won’t be going to New York together, like Molly had planned for them — their tension comes to a head and they split.
Who are they without each other? Maybe it’s finally time to find out.
There Are No Easy Answers
One of Booksmart‘s defining features is its rejection of judgment.
While past coming-of-age films usually require the characters to forsake their youthful habits or discard childish beliefs, Booksmart instead suggests that growing up means finally embracing the grey areas that have been there all along.
Is Molly a control freak?
Has Amy been too timid for her own good?
Did they do their high school years the “right” way or the “wrong” way?
Is it okay to be attracted to someone that you know is a bad match?
Can you admit to enjoying sex without that becoming your defining trait?
Should you ever accept a ride from a creepy stranger you’ve just tried to rob?
In the world of Booksmart, none of those questions have a yes or no answer. (Well, except maybe that last one…)
Instead, Molly and Amy have to learn an even bigger lesson: that life isn’t about getting every question right; it’s about finding the answer that’s right for you.
It’s also about learning to see people as they are, rather than seeing them as it’s convenient for us to see them.
But one thing Booksmart ISN’T about is something that almost every other comedy usually is… and its absence here is honestly refreshing.
Comedy Doesn’t Require Callousness
Maybe the biggest surprise of all in Booksmart is the way it completely avoids one of the hallmarks of high school comedy: shame-related humor.
At no point in the film do any of the characters ever insult each other’s bodies or appearances, aside from their fashion choices. This body-positive acceptance is signaled early on when Molly overhears Tanner (Nico Hiraga) admit to Theo (Eduardo Franco) that he would totally fuck Molly… “I’d just put a bag over her personality.”
With that phrase, Booksmart shifts the focus: this isn’t a gross-out sex comedy about whether or not people’s bodies are attractive, but a question of whether or not their personalities are.
Later in the film, when Nick and Molly are flirting, I found myself tensing up because I was anticipating a negative twist. I was waiting for Nick to reveal that he was just kidding, that he and his friends were only pretending to like Molly to set her up for embarrassment and ridicule… but that never happened. Sure, that scene still doesn’t end the fairy tale way Molly hopes it will, but it’s not necessarily because Nick is lying to her or trying to teach her a lesson.
I realized that tension is what a lifetime of shame-related humor has trained me to expect from a comedy, and especially from a high school comedy where identities are so closely tied to appearance and acceptance. Luckily, Wilde and Silberman have found a new way to mine awkward humor from tense situations that don’t rely on cheap insults or classist clichés, but instead poke at something even more cringe-inducing: the lies we tell ourselves.
If that comedic tonal shift alone ends up being Booksmart‘s legacy, I’ll gladly take it.
But I’m willing to bet it’ll be remembered for a whole lot more.