Does Booksmart spell the end of high school stereotypes?

Olivia Wilde’s new film provides a hierarchy without the misfits, jocks and nerds that once occupied teen stories

Teen movies love to classify people into cliques and categories but Olivia Wilde’s new comedy Booksmart blows that all apart. It is a teen movie for the ages, mixing elements of Superbad, Dazed and Confused, perhaps a touch of Lady Bird, but, in its own unpretentious way, Booksmart is also a tale about the dangers of labelling people in the first place. It makes the teen movies of yesteryear look old-fashioned, because they are.

The film’s heroes, Molly and Amy (played by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever), are the dorky, studious types, who forsook partying for the library all through high school and earned Ivy League college places as a result. But their world falls apart when they discover that everyone else is going to good colleges, too. All the people they defined themselves against – the skater dudes, the mean girls, the rich kids, the drama gays, the girl with a reputation for giving out handjobs – they all studied and partied. Molly and Amy could be considered the classic “geek girls”. Critic Emily Yoshida puts them in what she sees as a new archetype of late-2010s teendom: the “socially conscious busybody”, in the tradition of Reese Witherspoon in Election, Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But maybe today’s fluid teens aren’t so easy to pin down.

It is a far cry from The Breakfast Club, which gave us the full periodic table of archetypes: rebel, jock, square, prom queen, misfit. Or Heathers, with its, er, Heathers. Or Mean Girls’ classification system, as laid out in the cafeteria map Lindsay Lohan is handed, which included such categories as “varsity jocks”, “cheerleaders”, “unfriendly black hotties”, “cool Asians”, “Asian nerds”, “asexual band geeks”, “sexually active band geeks”, and, of course, “Plastics”.

As Olivia Wilde put it, talking about Booksmart: “The younger generation are operating in such a different way … they are demanding to be set free from a binary way of thinking in terms of sexuality, gender and politics.” The same could be true of their social groupings. Molly and Amy come to realise they’ve been labelling their peers because they imagine everybody’s labelling them. Hailee Steinfeld had a similar revelation in The Edge of Seventeen (prompted by her outsider best friend hooking up with her cool brother). Emma Stone’s Easy A had a similar message about how easy it is to acquire a label, and how hard it is to get rid of.

What is so lovable about Booksmart is how we come to see its array of characters as people rather than types. It celebrates that glorious moment when you get to the end of school and realise that the people you always thought of as dicks, jocks, geeks, or whatever, are actually all right. And that maybe you were a bit of a dick yourself.

Booksmart is out in cinemas on Monday 27 May


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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