‘Booksmart’ is the female ‘Superbad,’ and that means more than you think

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Hollywood has recently discovered something incredible: if you put women in movies, people will watch them. A study last year concluded that films starring women earned more than films starring men from 2014-2017. Still, women only accounted for a quarter of lead protagonists in top films.

Studios have rushed to close this gap, and a slew of female-led films have continued to perform well. But even when these movies have succeeded, a confounding trend has emerged: they are identified as female versions of pre-existing male-led projects (admittedly, the very framing of this issue as a battle between female and male movies contributes to this framing). Movies like Ocean’s 8, Ghostbusters, and The Hustle have been direct gender-swapping remakes, but films that are not so transparent also fall into this trap: Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman get dubbed the female superhero movie; Bridesmaids gets dubbed the female Apatow movie. Financial incentives may have studios making a long-delayed shift toward female representation on screen, but the mindset with which the general public approaches movies is still rooted in a fundamentally male identity.

Booksmart is the latest film to fall victim to this trend, having been roundly proclaimed the female Superbad in the run-up to its release. I denounced this trend in my summer movie preview just a couple of weeks ago: “Booksmart is earning comparisons to Superbad, but I hope it’s allowed to live as a new classic all unto itself.”

After seeing the excellent Booksmart this weekend, though, I’ve changed my thinking: Booksmart is the female Superbad. I don’t mean this in the way this sort of description is normally used, lazily and laced with subtle criticisms of derivation. I mean this both as a literal description of the movie and as an explanation of what makes it unique.

The surface-level similarities between Booksmart and Superbad are obvious. The plots are nearly identical: two longtime best friends (played in Booksmart by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever) in their senior year of high school look to change their socially inferior reputations right before heading off to college by seeking out a party hosted by classmates much cooler than they are. Both films are set in California and focus on upper class white suburban teens (this could just as well be a description of the high school movie genre). Both films center their humor on a diet of lewd sex jokes and adolescent sincerity. The up-and-coming leads in the films are even siblings in real life (Feldstein and Jonah Hill).

Where Booksmart differs is in its gender composition, but the distinction isn’t superficial: its female focus doesn’t just change the cast, but the purpose of its narrative. Superbad was a story about friendship and sexual insecurity and self-confidence, all filtered through the lens of toxic masculinity. Like most films in the Apatow universe, its aims were sweet but its method to get there was crude, hilarious, and often problematic. It’s a rewarding portrayal of male adolescence in the sense that, with self-awareness or not, it captures the totality of male emotional life in 2007, and reflects its sympathies, for better or for worse.

Booksmart, meanwhile, navigates female self-discovery through a viewpoint of gender-specific insecurities. In Superbad, Hill played an asshole who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. In Booksmart, Feldstein’s character is an ambitious, uptight go-getter á la Tracy Flick, and her anxieties are specific to the emotional expectations put upon successful women. It’s also a more sympathetic version of this character than we are used to seeing; we are laughing with her, not at her.

And while the men of Superbad bond by viciously insulting one another until they erupt with emotional honesty, the women of Booksmart are effusive in their love and respect for one another. Sure, they can be raunchy like the guys and just as sexually frustrated, but the details of the characters are rooted in how swapping the gender of the leads actually changes the story itself.

This intentionality is what makes something like Booksmart more valuable than something like Ocean’s 8. Debbie Ocean pulls off robberies just like her brother, and the fact that she’s a woman has little to do with it. That might sound like progress on the surface, but it just results in the sort of movie that I can never figure out why it got made except to extend a franchise’s net worth. Booksmart is the female Superbad but is purposefully so, and is a model for how these sorts of female-centric projects should be created in the future.

The other central tenet of this equation, of course, is who creates the story. Ocean’s 8 was written and directed by a man; Booksmart was written by a woman (Katie Silberman, also the writer of last year’s excellent Set It Up) and directed by a woman (actress Olivia Wilde, in her directorial debut). If movies like Booksmart are to continue to succeed, it’s because the people making them are doing so from a knowledgeable perspective.

If there is one way I hope Booksmart ends up being most like Superbad, it’s in its ability to usher in a new wave of comedic talent. Feldstein and Dever are both outstanding; they manage to act as emotional foils for each other and also synchronous soulmates. I already knew how great Feldstein was from Lady Bird, but Dever stood out in the film. I’d seen her give exceptional performances going back as far as Short Term 12, but Booksmart is one of the first chances she’s had to completely own the screen, and she really does. In many high school movies actors have a tendency to overplay their adolescent awkwardness. Dever, meanwhile, exists comfortably in her role while still inhabiting those awkward affectations, and the nuances of her character come naturally. She’s a captivating screen presence, but not in the blinding movie star sort of way that takes away attention from the movie itself. When I revisit Booksmart in the future, I will be watching for her performance.

The film doesn’t depend entirely on its two stars, though; the cast of Booksmart is rounded out with talent. Skyler Gisondo is a standout as the rich kid who’s a secret softie; Billie Lourd is hilarious as his best friend who seems to be everywhere at once. Jessica Williams is very good, albeit in a role and plot line that I could have done completely without. If I had to pick one actress who might be a star in three years, though, it would Diana Silvers, who only gets a few minutes of screen time but absolutely makes the most of them.

So whether Booksmart is able to outrun the comparisons to male-centric films that came before it, I think it’s going to be looked back upon as a treasure trove of young talent. Because if you strip away all the comparisons and just examine the film itself, it is an absolute delight. Booksmart is not the best movie I saw this year, but it’s the one that made me the happiest walking out of the theater. For that quality alone, I think it will indeed live on as a new high school movie classic unto itself.

Booksmart: 3.5 stars

Jacob Skubish