‘Booksmart’: Class of Gen Z

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When you say coming-of-age film, your mind is instantly drawn to cult classics like “Breakfast Club” (1985), “Pretty in Pink” (1986), “Clueless” (1995), and “The Princess Diaries” (2001). Not stories of straight-A girls going for a rowdy night out the day before high school graduation after realizing they wasted four years in suburbia having not been to a single house party.

 Throw a reunion if you’ve graduated within the last ten years because “Booksmart” is the most accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a high schooler in the 2010s.

I had the privilege of seeing an early screening of Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart” (2019) at Columbia College Chicago, with a Q and A afterward featuring Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever and a prerecorded message from Olivia wearing a Columbia T-shirt wishing us luck on finals. I highly suggest watching this film in either a crowded theater or with your closest group of friends from high school. Throw a reunion if you’ve graduated within the last ten years because “Booksmart” is the most accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a high schooler in the 2010s.

Part of “Booksmart”‘s appeal is that it perfectly captures the culture of Gen Z.

I watched “Booksmart” with an audience who had graduated from high school in either 2015, 2016, 2017, or 2018, and what’s so important about that is “Booksmart” was tangible for us to understand—the film deeply connected with us in ways that older films don’t. Part of “Booksmart”‘s appeal is that it perfectly captures the culture of Gen Z: From opening with a scene of Molly (Beanie Feldstein) listening to an empowering mindfulness podcast, to the emphasis on music and how it allows teens to feel powerful and in a world of their own, to the soul-crushing moment when Molly realizes the slackers are more or less equals to her.

High school is now such a competitive place, and coming-of-age films often don’t address this, but this one did.

As a graduate of the class of 2016, I felt this heavily. Molly is going through the discovery that the kids she saw as other, as less than because they partied on the weekends between assignments, are just as smart as she is. I too was fighting to get higher grades than the jocks in my AP classes. High school is now such a competitive place, and coming-of-age films often don’t address this, but this one did. With both heart and comedy.

Molly and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are two confident nerds who are still attached to the old idea of the class divide in the high school community, but this film turns that idea on its head as they seek out a party to crash their last day before freedom into the world. When they eventually do reach the party, Molly and Amy are accepted by the crew there. Everyone is surprised that they’re there, but they quickly invite Molly and Amy to drink and have fun.

This moment is such an honest look into high school today. I also spent a lot of high school thinking I wouldn’t be accepted by the “popular” kids, only to realize once I was at parties that I would have been accepted, and that they weren’t that different from me. Same as Molly and Amy, I quickly learned that these teens were going to Ivy Leagues.

Today, the rigid structure of the high school class system has been dissolved as colleges get more and more competitive. But that isn’t where the similarities between “Booksmart” and my own high school experience end—there is something else that I have to commend the film for.

I can only speak from my own queer experience, which I felt was shown through the character Amy. Some might expect that “Booksmart” will be Molly’s movie and Amy will be just a side character, but that’s far from true. Amy has her own coming of age to do, and she just so happens to be queer. They never label Amy’s sexuality throughout the film except that she’s come out as loving girls, which was very bold of the film to do. The film treats her sexuality as an extension of her, rather than making her character arc about coming out and having Molly accept her. Amy has a small side plot where she’s attracted to this girl Ryan, and I won’t spoil it, but her conflict at their final party shows how you can still be out and accepted but feel alone in a room of crowded people. And even your biggest allies can put themselves above you, and that’s where things take an unexpected turn in this film.

Amy’s conflicts also come from her own deep-rooted insecurities in her friendship with Molly, and how her experiences as a queer person differ from her straight peers.

Amy’s conflicts also come from her own deep-rooted insecurities in her friendship with Molly, and how her experiences as a queer person differ from her straight peers. Amy is out but that doesn’t mean that prospective girlfriends are coming out of the woodwork for her, and that is something that queer teens can resonate with. We may be interested in someone, but we don’t know if they’re interested in us or how to navigate that conversation. We aren’t polished and have awkward slips and bad days just the same as the straight teens who have had their pain shown on-screen for decades.

The very crux of “Booksmart” comes from when Amy is dealing with heartbreak and embarrassment and wants to leave the party, but Molly is finally getting a chance with a jock. Every girl knows this struggle. It’s a universal truth that at some point in your friendship you will fight with each other to the point of frustration. Once again, this film mimicked my own best friend fights where it became an overwhelming power imbalance and we forgot even what we were fighting about. Similar to Amy, I’ve also had straight friends dismiss my pain and try to make theirs bigger.

These are the types of issues that teens are facing right now and it is so refreshing to see Amy and Molly fight over this rather than a boy they both want.

These are the types of issues that teens are facing right now and it is so refreshing to see Amy and Molly fight over this rather than a boy they both want. In that way, “Booksmart” is perhaps the strongest female friendship film I’ve seen that captures the nuances and complexities of female friendships. So here’s to your friends, to the class of 2019, and to those raging house parties of high school.

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