Upcoming high school comedy “Booksmart,” directed by first-timer Olivia Wilde, is the latest quick-witted project to use friendship as a means to explore the complex emotions of teenage girls. The film stars Beanie Feldstein, 25, and Kaitlyn Dever, 22, as Molly and Amy.
The duo joins the protagonists of several films released in the past few years, among them “The Edge of Seventeen” and “Lady Bird” (in which Feldstein also stars), in straying from established high school archetypes. These girls are bold yet vulnerable, awkward yet self-assured. Never the punchlines, they’re treated with genuine interest and a refreshing honesty more often reserved for their male counterparts.
On a late April day, Feldstein reaches over a table to place her hand in Dever’s.
“A quick handhold,” Feldstein playfully announces while discussing how she and her co-star bonded in the nine-ish weeks they spent working on “Booksmart.” They lived together for the entirety of that period, rehearsing trickier lines over morning pancakes and snuggling up to watch “Gilmore Girls” at night.
Feldstein wears a vibrant floral print and block heels that make her feet hurt. Dever is a bit moodier in her mannerisms and attire, sporting a tiger-striped sweater dress and heeled Doc Martens. They both complement and compliment one another — not unlike their characters.
“Booksmart” carries the studious friends through their last day of high school, when they discover that, contrary to what they long believed to be true, hard partying didn’t prevent their classmates from also getting into Ivies (or from landing a job in Silicon Valley, in one kid’s case). Panicked by the thought of having missed out and determined to prove how fun they can be, Molly persuades Amy to set out for a wild night on the eve of their graduation: “I’m going to experience a seminal fun anecdote!” Molly declares.
“Or even just one,” Dever adds. “It’s crazy, but it’s really rare for me — or both of us, being young women — to be sent comedic scripts to lead. It just doesn’t happen.”
Though it centers on nerdy high schoolers, "Booksmart" lacks the classic glasses-off, hair-down transformation — the only makeover here took place behind the scenes. Wilde recruited Katie Silberman to overhaul a script by Susanna Fogel, who had reworked another that writing partners Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins drafted a decade ago. (All four women are credited on the film.)
It wasn’t until 2015 that Wilde got her hands on Fogel’s version, she says over the phone, adding that she loved the core idea of “two smart women who are unabashedly brilliant” but wanted to direct a version that spoke significantly to “this young generation.”
Molly and Amy wound up as socially conscious Gen Zers who stage impromptu dance parties before driving to their Los Angeles high school in a car decorated with “Resist” and “Elizabeth Warren 2020” bumper stickers. They have bright futures ahead of them at Yale and Columbia, respectively — “where the culture is,” as Lady Bird would cry — and worked tirelessly to get there. Feldstein refers to them as “unapologetic feminists” who are “confident in their intelligence.” They know there’s always room for growth, but they don’t start out wanting to change.
Both actresses join Wilde and Silberman in expressing that a film like theirs might not have been as viable back in 2009, when the original script was written. Now, because of everything that has unfolded over the past three years, Silberman says over the phone, a wave of bravery and strength has pushed dynamic young women into the limelight more than ever.
“In a lot of ways, it felt like the industry needed to catch up to a story about young, smart women who were multidimensional,” she says.
Molly and Amy are funny and supportive, exhibited by their frequent compliment battles (which are exactly what they sound like). They’re sex positive, as we learn from an exceedingly frank conversation about Amy’s masturbation habits.
But they can also be naive. Among Silberman’s additions to the script was the plot’s catalyst, a scene in which Molly discovers that in writing off her classmates who drink and have sex, she misjudged those who she assumed had been judging her. She learns about their respective bright futures while confronting three of them in the bathroom after overhearing them poke fun at her intense personality — lighthearted criticism Feldstein considers somewhat valid, given that Molly “ostracizes people” instead of letting them in, and subtly revolutionary because, in another film, they might have unfairly targeted her appearance.
“All these assumptions we make are unraveled,” Wilde says. Silberman adds that she and Wilde wanted to make sure “Booksmart” didn’t have any villains, but instead characters whom Molly and Amy simply “misunderstood in the beginning.”
It’s an emotional journey similar, if less dramatic, to the one high school junior Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) embarks on in 2016’s “The Edge of Seventeen,” written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. Rocked by the sudden death of her father, the only family member she felt close to, Nadine leans on her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) for support. But when Krista begins dating Nadine’s older brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), a popular jock judged harshly by his sister, Nadine channels her feelings of betrayal into anger. She lashes out, isolating herself further.
“I wanted to make a film that made you laugh but also gave you a really close-up look at the complexity of a teenage girl’s internal life. Even the ugliest corners of it, you know?” Craig says over the phone. “A film that really showed all of her — every little messy, complicated nook and cranny — and didn’t shy away from the parts that weren’t pretty.”
While working on the script, Craig chatted with high schoolers from all over the country to find out what made them tick. She was reminded of “all the ways that age is so painful, ugly and embarrassing, but also beautiful and buoyant and a time where your emotions are bigger than they ever are in your whole life.”
Before they became the sort of friends to wear matching necklaces bearing the title of their movie, Feldstein and Dever used to cross paths at film festivals. They were never formally introduced, but Feldstein can recall the moment she first laid eyes on her future co-star.
“I will never forget,” she says, pointing at Dever. “You were in pink.”
“Oh my God.”
“I had flown out that morning to go to the Toronto film festival for ‘Lady Bird,’ and at my first stop of the day, you were taking photos for something. ... I don’t think I had yet met with Olivia, but I was about to. I was like, ‘That’s Kaitlyn Dever.’”
The actresses’ mutual appreciation mirrors the dynamic that anchors “Booksmart,” which has earned numerous comparisons since its premiere at South by Southwest to 2007’s “Superbad,” starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill, who happens to be Feldstein’s older brother. Wilde and Silberman cite “Dazed and Confused,” another story that takes place over one crazy night, as inspiration for their film, as well as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Clueless.”
Friendship is so central to “Booksmart” that the film’s most devastating moment is not when Molly and Amy discover (spoiler alert) that their respective crushes on a handsome slacker and chill skater girl are unrequited, but when the wild night culminates in a fight between the two friends. The more introverted Amy is upset with Molly for pushing her out of her comfort zone, while Molly tires of always being the one who takes initiative.
“The fight was a challenging scene to write,” Silberman says. “The fights with your best friend are the worst fights because they have all the ammo — they know the most about you. The restraint versus what the kill shot is, in that way, was difficult.”
Dever says the fight is her favorite scene to watch, largely because the intimacy with which Wilde shot the interaction, which takes place in the center of a party, “just fits with the emotion.”
“What we’ve always said with that scene is that both of them are right and both of them are wrong,” Feldstein adds. “It has to be that way for the scene to work. Where one line, you’re like, ‘Amy, no!’ and the next you’re like, ‘Molly, stop, don’t say that!’ You’re really on that journey.”
It was the only scene the actresses never rehearsed. Dever says the shot included in the film is the second of four takes, a noticeably low number for a scene between multiple leads. The emotion is fresh, palpable — and reminiscent of a more humorous fight from Greta Gerwig’s 2017 solo directorial debut “Lady Bird” between the uncool titular character (Saoirse Ronan) and her best friend Julie (Feldstein).
Lady Bird, thinking she has outgrown the friendship, abandons Julie to hang out with the edgier cool kids but then confronts her after class. “Why aren’t you in Algebra II?” Lady Bird asks, to which Julie responds that she switched sections. “Aren’t Jenna and Kyle enough?” she demands, chastising Lady Bird for skipping out on drama club. Too stubborn to see her missteps, Lady Bird gives up the play, but returns to an emotional Julie’s side on prom night.
“I wanted to explore the fact that I think when you’re a teenager, you’re trying to figure out who you are through the refraction of other people,” Gerwig told NPR of the relationship. “It’s reaching for a definition of oneself through relationships and sometimes rejecting the ones that are close to you because you are sure that someone else is better.”
As with “Lady Bird,” “Booksmart” avoids making a big show of the reconciliation. “We’re not trying to push some larger message onto people,” Dever says. “It just reminds me of all the people I know, some of my closest friends.” It’s simply understood that rocky periods are a fact of best friendship, and that the relationships worth keeping will make it through.