‘Booksmart’ does a redo on the teen comedy
At the SXSW Film Festival in March, the teen comedy “Booksmart” was a standout with critics.
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, about two high-achieving friends who try to let loose before high school graduation, was praised as a hilarious, smart, and feminist take on an old genre. Wilde’s heroines, Amy and Molly, played by Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, spend one of their last nights together searching for the raucous parties they avoided in high school. They fearlessly pursue longtime crushes. They try to experience in one long night everything they’ve missed.
Wilde says it also happens to be a breakup film about two attached-at-the-hip teen life partners who must learn how to start life on their own.
Wilde — who spent her own high school years at Phillips Academy, in Andover — visited Boston last month with stars Dever and Feldstein to screen the film. They also talked about making the kind of movie they hope will become part of the quotable teen-film, coming-of-age canon.
Q. Are there scenes in “Booksmart” that resemble your own high school experience, at Andover? I’d assume the high school in the film is very different from a New England boarding school.
A. [Olivia Wilde] Totally different culture. . . . [But it’s the] universal struggle of the adolescent experience. No matter where you go to school, high school feels like war. Even at a place like Andover, which was non-traditional and didn’t really offer the opportunity for cool house parties, we still separated ourselves in the way that I think high schoolers tend to do out of a need for protection. You know, it’s a tendency to categorize other people out of fear.
Q. Often, when there are “brainy” characters in teen films, that’s their one trait. That’s how they’re categorized. But the three of you were careful to present these two young women as full people. You can be book smart and be funny.
A. [Kaitlyn Dever] I think that’s what we’re asking the audience. Maybe you can judge people a little less at first glance. With [her character] Amy, she’s not just smart. She has so much to her, and playing her was so great because she just reminds me of my best friend. She reminds me of me, you know. Every young kid has anxiety, and not all of us are super courageous all the time.
[Beanie Feldstein:] The fact that there are two smart girls [in the film] who are completely different and love each other: a) shows girls who are so supportive of each other; and, b) breaks down what the idea of a smart girl looks like or sounds like.
Q. The film doesn’t abandon teen-movie tropes. It does put an entirely new spin on them and allows new kind of characters to be placed in these classic scenarios.
A. [Wilde] The scene at the end with [Amy’s love interest], Hope (played by Diana Silvers), leaning on Amy’s house, waiting for her to come out --
Q. That felt like Jake Ryan [from “Sixteen Candles”]!
A. [Wilde] Exactly. We thought, “Oh, those elements are in those stories for good reason, but we think we can tell them in a different way.” What’s important about them isn’t the kind of gender-specific dynamics; it’s just about the specifics of the character. But it’s still really kind of delicious and satisfying to see like, you know, the crush. Watching Hope walk away is like watching every iconic hot guy in every ’80s movie.
Q. We’re talking about Jake Ryan here, so I’m wondering about your classic teen/buddy movies. Have they changed? Are these ’80s films relevant?
A. [Dever]: Honestly, I love “The Breakfast Club.” I love “Weird Science,” too. That’s another best-friend comedy. I’ve been bringing up [the television show] “Lizzie McGuire” lately. It really brought up topics for young girls for that time. I think that was a really big one for me.
[Feldstein:] “The Heat” [with Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock].
[Wilde:] “Clueless” is a movie that has really spanned different generations. It’s amazing, because Amy Heckerling is incredibly good at creating timeless stories that are also very timely somehow. “Clueless” feels like a time capsule, and yet totally applicable to every generation. I’d say the same with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
Q. You screened “Booksmart” at Brown University, and you’ve had a bunch of Q&As with big audiences. What do you hear from the audience? As a director, what is it like to watch with an audience?
A. [Wilde:] At SXSW, our Q&A was remarkable. [There was] a young woman who stepped to the microphone and started crying, and she said, “I was the valedictorian at my school. I got up to make a speech at graduation, I looked into the audience, and I didn’t know anyone.” And she was looking at Beanie and she said, “Thank you for making me feel seen.” . . . [As a director], it’s a vulnerable thing, a scary thing. We showed it to 1,100 people at once. I was terrified. Beanie was sitting next to me, making sure I didn’t like leap out of my seat. It felt like I was showing people my home videos.
Q. People loved it.
A. [Wilde:] It was satisfying that so many different types of people were feeling that way — men, older men, younger men, older women, younger women — because there’s a tendency to pigeonhole these films as, “This is teen female content.” We never felt that.
[Feldstein:] I forced my dad to come to Austin [for SXSW]. He doesn’t like to travel or really leave his TV. And I was like, “Please, Dad, I think it’s going to be like a really big night,” and he was like, “OK, Bean, for you,” and I’ve literally never heard my father laugh so loud over and over.
Q. This film is very quotable. With “Lady Bird,” you’re already someone whose line delivery is so quotable. There’s that meme where it’s you shouting, “It’s the titular role!”
A. [Feldstein:] I remember during the Claire Foy “The Crown” [conversation], when it came out that [Foy] wasn’t being paid as much [as her co-star], I went to my Twitter and I was like, “What am I doing wrong?” There were thousands of [that meme]; [People] were using the “it’s the titular role!” clip. I feel like, what an honor to be in something that people connect to, and also that people find hysterical. I grew up quoting “Mean Girls.” “Miss Congeniality” — I think I could tell you the entire film start to finish. There are so many “Bridesmaids” lines I still quote every day. So if people want to, like, you know, say something we say to each other [in “Booksmart”] . . . that’s such a thrill.