“Booksmart” earnestly embraces all of Gen Z’s differences in celebration of all their similarities

Catch Olivia Wilde’s 2019 feature debut at Memorial Union Terrace on Monday, June 5, at 9 p.m.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein, left) stares off-screen to the right, wearing a yellow turtleneck sweater and green plaid blazer. Her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), wearing a denim jacket, locks hands with Molly, and also stares off-screen with a stunned look on her face.
Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) are shocked and elated when their favorite English teacher (Jessica Williams) gives them her phone number to trade crossword puzzle answers after they graduate.

Catch Olivia Wilde’s 2019 feature debut at Memorial Union Terrace on Monday, June 5, at 9 p.m.

A sure way to track the cultural zeitgeist is to simply watch the coming-of-age comedies of each decade. Even with all the similarities of genre, the differences between movies like Heathers (1989), Clueless (1995), and Mean Girls (2004) serve as little artifacts of their respective times. What made the coveted “15-24” demographic laugh in the ’80s, ’90s, or early 2000s? What narrative or costume design would be relatable enough to compel them to make the trek to the theater?

Booksmart (2019) is one relic of the 2010s that may be of use to those dedicated anthropologists who tirelessly search for an understanding of the “baffling” Gen Z, with their “novel ideas” about gender and sexuality, politics, life.

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut follows best friends and Ivy League-bound girls Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever). On the eve of their graduation from a high school in Los Angeles, they realize that even the kids they categorized as “hot, popular, and dumb” are headed off to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, or to Google with coding gigs.   

In a tense confrontation with Molly, Triple A (Molly Gordon)—who earned her nickname because of a school-wide rumor involving a car and three senior boys—boasts, “I’m going to Yale, too. […] I’m incredible at handjobs, but I also got a 1560 on the SATs.” Cue the existential crisis that propels Molly and Amy on a quest to experience the aesthetics of reckless teenagedom before they lose access forever. 

Their mutual journey doesn’t end in a tranquil, neat, and cheesy sense of moral superiority, like Veronica Sawyer’s (in Heathers), Cher Horowitz’s (in Clueless), or Cady Heron’s (in Mean Girls). Rather, with the signature dry cynicism of Gen-Z humor (hear the well-to-do Jared, played by Skyler Gisondo, claim that he can buy people’s affection with money because his parents, and their parents, did), it leads them to an accelerated appreciation for the many dimensions of any individual. It’s an epiphany that typically doesn’t occur organically until years of adolescent insecurity and self-doubt. Molly and Amy become genuine friends, reach a sincere understanding, with the same peers they used to harshly judge from their thrones made of diplomas, acceptance letters to Yale and Columbia, and valedictorian and salutatorian sashes. 

Previous generations’ offerings can’t quite claim the same, with their resolutions always sketching some sort of theoretical line between the social hierarchies that, despite a transformative experience for all of the characters, isn’t crossed. Heather Chandler ends up dead in Heathers, killed at the hands of Veronica Sawyer. Tai Frasier of Clueless is ultimately Cher Horowitz’s—the “it” girl’s—charity project. Regina George is hit by a bus in Mean Girls and blames Cady Heron for it. It’s a begrudging acknowledgment.

But Booksmart is about cinematically capturing what the fledglings of Gen Z claim as the group’s defining characteristic: the unaffected embrace of all our differences in celebration of all our similarities. The “popular kids” are just like you, and will likely welcome you with open arms if you let them.

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