Don't call it a female Superbad: Booksmart is the raunchy queer teen comedy we've been waiting for
Run, don't walk, to Olivia Wilde's heartfelt, hilarious and very gay directorial debut
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Even if summer proper doesn't officially begin until June 21st — though hopefully the weather affiliated with it shows up around these parts sooner — summer movie "season" is already in full swing. What used to kick off over the weekend after Victoria Day (a.k.a. Memorial Day weekend in the U.S.) now basically begins whenever the folks at Disney and Marvel decide they want it to, as evidenced when The Avengers: Endgame obliterated the pop cultural zeitgeist on April 26th.
From that weekend on through the end of August, billions of dollars worth of remakes and sequels and sequels of remakes will pretty much dominate movie theatres, which historically has offered pretty much nothing in terms of LGBTQ representation (and no, that guy in Steve Rogers's Endgame support group definitely doesn't count). However, 2019 is about to offer back-to-back exceptions to that rule in Booksmart and Rocketman, which will become only the second and third movies with lead LGBTQ characters to open wide during the summer "season." (The pioneering first? That would be Sacha Baron Cohen's Brüno in 2009.)
Few have seen Dexter Fletcher's Elton John biopic Rocketman, though that will change tomorrow night when it has its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. I'm unfortunately not on my way to the French Riviera, so I won't see it until a week later when it kicks off the Inside Out Toronto LGBT Film Festival here in Toronto (which ideally does not result in a future edition of this column that feels like a sequel to this). But I suspect either way that Rocketman is probably destined to become a massive hit no matter what — a fate not quite as certain for Booksmart, a film I am fortunate to have both seen and loved.
The directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, Booksmart gives us two of the more fully-realized female characters in the high school comedy lexicon in Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), lifelong best friends who realize on their last day of high school that they maybe devoted a little too much time to studying. They decide to try and make up for lost time on the night before graduation, with a variety of wild hijinks ensuing that lead both young women to some self-actualization by film's end.
If you're thinking this all sounds essentially like a female Superbad, you're not the first. Booksmart has been repeatedly pegged as just that since it started gaining buzz off its premiere at SXSW back in March. On paper, the comparison is admittedly fair: both films are R-rated coming-of-age comedies centred around best friends and their missions of debauchery before graduating high school. They even each feature a real-life sibling in one of the lead roles, as Feldstein is the younger sister of Superbad's Jonah Hill. But there's a few drastic differences that make Booksmart a far more progressive — and, frankly, superior — film.
First and foremost, Booksmart is written, directed and primarily starring women, which is pretty much entirely unheard of for R-rated comedies of any kind (near-examples include last year's Blockers, which was directed by Kay Cannon but written mostly by men, and 2011's Bridesmaids, which was written by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig but directed by Paul Feig). With that comes a sensibility that makes the familiar feel fresh, as Wilde's confident direction and the tight, hilarious script (by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman) collectively offer high school raunch — and there is quite a bit of raunch — an emotional weight it's perhaps never had before. And it certainly doesn't hurt that the actors — which beyond Dever and Feldstein include Billie Lourd, Noah Galvin, Austin Crude and Skyler Sisondo as their classmates — are all perfectly cast.
While that in itself is pioneering, Booksmart takes its transgression a step further by making basically half of its teenage characters LGBTQ, including Dever's co-lead Amy. And unlike what you'd probably expect, Amy has been out for years before the film's narrative begins; her parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte, two more reasons to see the film) are already adorably supportive; and the "she wants to get laid" plotline usually reserved for hot straight male jock-types is given to her — and she definitely goes for it. What Blockers laid the groundwork for, Booksmart builds on — which is especially gratifying given how consistently homophobic the genre it belongs to was not too long ago. 12 years ago, few people even flinched when Superbad included multiple homophobic jokes (jokes that co-writer Seth Rogen has since apologized for). Now, the joke's on the homophobes: this raunchy teen comedy is for us. The only issue that remains is whether we go see it.
Last year, the first two studio films with lead (or co-lead) teen LGBTQ characters were released in Love, Simon and the aforementioned Blockers. Both films made decent amounts of money, taking in $40 million and $60 million in North America, respectively. But they weren't released in the summer up against the various billion dollar blockbusters Booksmart is (it's out May 24th, the same day as Aladdin and a week before Godzilla: King of the Monsters). Which is why it is so important that we all go out and support it. If it can even come close to making the $121 million Superbad made back in the summer of '07, it will open doors for more progressive takes on teen comedies to follow in its footsteps. And it's not like you'll be making any sacrifice: while I have admittedly have not seen the dozens of blockbusters coming our way in the coming months, we've all seen this tragic suggestion of the quality of one in particular — so I have a feeling Booksmart won't have much trouble ending up as one of the best films released during the summer movie "season." And I'm absolutely certain it will end up one of the gayest.