On making a generational anthem: An interview with the cast and crew of ‘Booksmart’

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Coming-of-age films are a veritable gateway for a budding movie lover, telling stories that speak to youth anxiety while giving up-and-coming talents a chance to make a name for themselves. “Booksmart” is another addition to this pantheon, tackling the experience of the modern teenager by taking big comedic swings while staying light on its feet.

In a roundtable interview with The Daily Californian, co-writer Katie Silberman and director Olivia Wilde spoke on their ambitions for “Booksmart” and how their project figures into this one tradition of American filmmaking.

“The whole reason I wanted to make it is … these are movies that shaped me. … They guided me (and) contextualized the whole experience of growing up,” Wilde said.

Silberman made the observation that films like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Clueless” not only remain classics because of their timeless humanity, but also because they are films that are associated with the decades in which they were released. With “Booksmart,” Silberman spoke for the cast and crew’s intention of making a generational anthem for the 2010s that would remain entertaining across generations.

While “Booksmart” doesn’t hide how much it owes to its coming-of-age predecessors, Wilde highlighted other films that helped provided a template for its story. The director recounted how she looked to “The Big Lebowski” as an inspiration for the more bizarre set pieces, and she pitched the movie as “Training Day” — which follows a rookie cop accompanying a corrupt one, waiting to sell his partner out — for teenagers. Though this is an atypical comparison, “Booksmart” also aligns itself with its lead’s perspectives to instill a sense of high stakes and firecracker volatility.

Adding to that tension is the rich comedic texture provided by the film’s stellar supporting cast. From the theater devotees to the loner rich kids, “Booksmart” effortlessly navigates a carousel of high school archetypes by allowing every teen, no matter how peripheral, to tell jokes instead of be punchlines.

“I knew they would deliver time and time again, but I needed them to be prepared,” Wilde said about her cast. “They were … so creative in the moment. We got this embarrassment of riches of material.”

The director went on to highlight the snippets of social media peppered across the film, saying she simply let the cast loose and trusted them to create compelling, energetic party footage. “They overdelivered. … It will all be on the DVD extras.”

Ultimately, though, “Booksmart” rests on the shoulders of its leads. Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever play Molly and Amy, respectively — partners in crime diving into new social spheres with a gung-ho resolve to prove themselves. Their characters’ strenuous attempts to prove their coolness are juxtaposed with the duo’s extreme comfort with one another, breaking into spontaneous robot dances and bouts of back-and-forth complimenting. Feldstein and Dever discussed how they lived together for five weeks, happily bringing the work of the film back home at the end of each shooting day.

First and foremost, “Booksmart” is a story of female friendship. Yet when asked about the strong positive reactions the film has garnered at film festival screenings, Wilde wanted to highlight the enthusiasm coming from different people.

“There’s been a paradigm set that assumes that men don’t like stories about women. … I actually think it’s incredibly valuable to meet men who are actually connecting to (the film) and want to talk about that,” the director said. “People are going to recognize that it’s worth making movies about women made by women, because guess what? Lots of different people love them.”

This mixture of both specificity and accessibility in character speaks to the sympathy Molly and Amy come to find for others over the course of the film. At the start, the two habitually dunk on everybody else under the suspicion that the school is collectively dunking on them. It’s only on the eve of graduation that they truly begin to try to understand their peers. Feldstein spoke on Molly’s tendency to put up a wall in fear of being torn down herself and her character’s journey to communicate and let go of preconceptions.

Discussing her approach to the script with Silberman, Wilde concluded the interview with a hope for what audiences will find in the film. “I want to talk about judgment, and how we all are judging each other and are therefore judging ourselves. What can we say about how foolish that is? Can we just strip that away?”

Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].