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Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart
Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein in Booksmart

The leads of Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart want to queer up the teen movie genre

Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein talk about the importance of coming out stories and creating the new sleepover film

Imagine Training Day set in a high school: that was how actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde pitched Booksmart to Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein, the film’s two dynamic leads. Instead of grizzled cops, though, Booksmart’s protagonists are Amy (Dever) and Molly (Feldstein), a pair of straight-A students navigating the tricky terrain of partying with their peers. In a shrewd inversion of the teen genre, the pair learn on the last day of school that they’ve underestimated their classmates: the slackers who’ve dabbled with weed, alcohol and sex have also secured places at Ivy League universities. “I’m incredible at handjobs,” snaps Triple A (Molly Gordon), “but I also got a 1560 on the SATs.” In contrast, Amy and Molly have only used their fake IDs to sneak into a college’s 24-hour library.

For many viewers, Booksmart will be highly relatable: it depicts how school is survivable with the aid of a loyal, secret-sharing BFF. (The rest of us who had no friends will still have Eighth Grade.) Together, Molly and Amy can discuss anything: crushes, masturbation techniques, and so on. But Amy, who has been out for two years, still hasn’t asked out a girl. So Molly insists that they cram in several years of missed socialising into one drunken night. What ensues is a chaotic comedy about female friendship, unexpected self-discoveries, and realising that everyone is masking their own insecurities. It’s also, like Training Day, a foul-mouthed buddy movie for the ages.

To develop their on-screen chemistry, Dever and Feldstein lived together for the weeks leading up to the shoot. From what I can tell, it exists off-screen, too. When I meet the pair in Soho Hotel, it’s soon apparent that they naturally finish each other’s sentences – it’s charming to watch, a nightmare to transcribe.

“We were literally spending the day with each other,” Dever recalls. “Driving around LA, listening to music, and getting—” Feldstein chimes in: “Getting those heart to hearts.” “This movie relies so much on Molly and Amy’s bond,” Dever continues, “and their relationship and their love for each other. This movie wouldn’t work if we hadn’t gotten to know each other as well as we did.” Feldstein giggles, adding, “I literally just fed her a cookie before you walked in here.” Dever responds, “I didn’t even need my hands.”

What will happen when they face each other in an audition room? It’s happened before, Dever notes, but without any drama. “The idea of us ever being competitive is the funniest thing in the world to me,” Feldstein says. “I’d smack you on the tushy and be like, ‘Go get ‘em!’ I would pray they choose Kaitlyn. They’d be making the better decision.”

“We always said that the world wasn’t ready for it yet, and we reached a point where it was finally time to make a very evolved, very ‘woke’ kind of story” – Kaitlyn Dever

Even casual filmgoers will be familiar with both actors’ work. Feldstein, whose brother is Jonah Hill, played Saoirse Ronan’s theatre buddy in Lady Bird and delivers the meme-famous line: “It’s the titular role!” As for Dever, the former child performer has enjoyed supporting roles in around 10 indie dramas you’ve already seen – she was, more recently, Timothée Chalamet’s girlfriend in Beautiful Boy. However, in Booksmart, the pair take centre stage (it’s the titular role!) and are a Romy and Michelle for a new generation.

Other inspirations for Molly and Amy included Broad City and Paris Geller from Gilmore Girls. “Olivia screened Fast Times at Ridgemount High for the entire cast before we started filming,” says Feldstein. “She referenced Training DayThe Big Lebowski, and Paddington 2. We talked about Thelma and Louise, Hermione Granger, and Lisa Simpson – with her biting wit and unapologetic feminism. And how Matilda grown up might be Amy.”

Intriguingly, Booksmart nearly came out 10 years ago as a completely different movie. The original screenplay, penned by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, made the Black List in 2009 and temporarily had Natalie Portman attached as a producer. That draft, which I’ve read, revolves around Molly and Amy attempting to snag a boyfriend in the month leading up to prom: one takes up baseball to meet jocks, the other spreads a vicious rumour about a romantic rival. It’s funny material that needed updating for the current climate. At some point, Susanna Fogel reworked the script, and then Katie Silberman did enough of a rewrite to earn a producer credit. I’m not sure any jokes from the initial draft made it into the finished product.

“I read a version of the script four years ago,” says Dever. “Things like Amy’s sexuality – she wasn’t always a queer character. That was a new element brought to Booksmart, which I think is so important to see in a leading role. We always said that the world wasn’t ready for it yet, and we reached a point where it was finally time to make a very evolved, very ‘woke’ kind of story.”

“The three writers who worked on it before Katie are so a part of that journey,” adds Feldstein. “They created Molly and Amy. But as you said, in 10 years, a lot a can change. It was a lot about catching this script up to society, and having society catch up to the script simultaneously.”

Booksmart’s casual depiction of sexual fluidity feels major when you consider the kind of gay-panic jokes that flooded multiplex comedies a decade ago. As pointed out in a recent New York Times article called “How Hollywood Stopped Fearing Teen Lesbians”, the revenge plot of 2004’s beloved Mean Girls stems from Janis’s fury that someone spread a rumour that she’s gay; in that film’s “happy ending”, Janis finds a boyfriend. However, the queer characters of Booksmart are surrounded by supportive friends and relatives. When Amy’s open-minded parents (Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte) mistakenly think their daughter is in a relationship with Molly, the two teens find it hilarious.

”I was thinking about this the other day,” says Dever. “I don’t think I’ve seen it before, in a comedy setting, where the queer character is not the butt of the joke and she’s the leading character.”

“What made us tear up was someone messaging us saying it’s going to be their new sleepover movie” – Beanie Feldstein

“Also, Amy’s not discovering or coming to terms with her queerness throughout the film,” says Feldstein. “She’s actually just out, and that’s it. I think coming out stories are so important, and representation is so important, and that stage of representation is so important, but also there’s very little media on the next chapter, especially in a young person’s life, after they’ve come out. I think Booksmart is an incredible testament to how the broadening of narratives is really meaningful to people.”

“And in a big adventure-comedy setting, too,” adds Dever. “It’s so great, the fact that Amy’s not the only queer character in this movie–”

“At all,” says Feldstein.

“I know!” says Dever. “It’s really powerful.”

Booksmart, it must be said, really suits its cinema setting. The comic timing is sharp and propulsive, Wilde pours genuine care into the visuals, and the set-pieces zip along with verve and colour. It’s a movie that, thankfully, eschews the overused Apatow method of pointing a camera at a riffing actor and fixing disjointed takes in the edit. It sounds like a low bar to beat, but did you see Holmes & Watson? Wilde, who had previously only directed shorts and music videos, also pulls off a stop-motion Barbie doll sequence in the style of Todd Haynes’ Superstar. In an era when the most enjoyable American comedies tend to be on TV, it’s refreshing to see one designed for the theatrical experience. Let’s call it Big Screen Energy.

One of those cinematic moments is a fiery fight between Amy and Molly. “It’s so different to the rest of the film because it’s the one time they’re not comfortable with each other,” Feldstein explains. “So Olivia decided that we wouldn’t rehearse it together before we did it, which was really nerve-wracking. A lot of people cried on set that day.” Wilde frames the argument as one extended take, switching between the two fuming faces. “Your heart is breaking for these two characters you’ve been following this whole time,” Dever says. “Like any argument with someone you love so dearly, you reach this point where you’re just yelling to yell, and you’re saying things you don’t mean. I was brought to tears for real.”

That said, Booksmart is gleefully silly and spins in absurdist directions, especially when it incorporates two rich weirdoes (Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo), a murder-mystery enthusiast (Noah Galvin) and a hot-for-student teacher (Jessica Williams). There is, of course, some fine gross-out humour. “The prop department gave me a cup of this banana, applesauce and oatmeal concoction,” Dever says of her 5-star projectile vomit sequence. “It was like a little snack.”

Although there’s no plans for a sequel just yet (Feldstein suggests Booksmarter, set 15 years in the future), both actors have big projects premiering in the upcoming months. Dever will star alongside her childhood hero Toni Colette in the Netflix series Unbelievable, while Feldstein plays Caitlin Moran in the movie How to Be a Girl. “I got the role because I was the only person who didn’t do an impression,” Feldstein laughs. “I worship the ground that woman walks on, and I think she’s a feminist hero.”

Above all, what stands out during our conversation is the passionate response to Booksmart. “We premiered it at SXSW in a huge theatre of like 1,500 people,” Dever recalls. “There was a girl at the Q&A who couldn’t finish her question because she was moved to tears. She started crying and telling us how she felt seen by this movie. For Beanie and I, it was big moment to go: ‘Wow, this is why we made this movie. This is who we made this movie for.’”

“What made us tear up was someone messaging us saying it’s going to be their new sleepover movie,” Feldstein adds. “That is the most meaningful level of film that I want to be a part of – just something you want to watch over and over and over. That’s all you can ask for when making a movie.”

Booksmart opens in UK cinemas on May 27