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“Booksmart” is Generation Z’s “American Graffiti”

United Artists Releasing
“Booksmart” is smart about a lot more than just books.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Every generation of high schoolers gets a “one crazy night” comedy movie to call its own. Generation Z just got theirs.

Booksmart, the stunning directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, follows two high school seniors on a quest to finally let loose and have fun on the last day of classes. Wilde is a natural talent as a filmmaker, imbuing each frame with care and creativity and drawing two memorable performances out of her leads, Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever.

But Booksmart‘s greatest accomplishment—and the one it shares with the best films of the teen comedy canon—is that it treats its quirky cast of characters as actual people. There are no villains; there are hardly any stereotypes at all. Every student in the film is a fully formed individual capable of subverting our expectations of who they’re supposed to be.

By doing so, Wilde’s film becomes a worthy entry in the storied history of “one crazy night” coming-of-age teen comedies, a subgenre in which the action, as you’ve probably already assumed, takes place entirely over the course of a single day, usually toward the end of the school year.

George Lucas’s 1973 film American Graffiti is the seminal film of this kind. An ode to innocence lost in 1960s California, it became one of the most important films made by and for members of the Baby Boomer generation, encompassing the Boomer experience and ethos in two hours of vignettes. Though Wilde is herself not part of Gen Z, her film does the same for the generation on track to be the most diverse, most educated, and, of course, most tech-savvy one yet.

Here are some of the other influential films within the “one crazy night” subgenre:

Booksmart (2019)
High school seniors party on the last day of school.
Gen Z
Project X (2012)
High schoolers throw a party that spirals out of control.
Younger Millennials
$54.7 million
Superbad (2007)
High school seniors try to lose their virginity before college.
$121.4 million
Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
A high school senior class attends a graduation night party.
Older Millennials
$25.6 million
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Teens wander on the last day of school in 1976.
Gen X
$7.9 million
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
A high school senior fakes being sick to have fun.
Gen X
$70.1 million
Porky’s (1981)
Some misogynist teenagers in 1954 seek revenge on a nightclub.
Older Gen X/Silent Generation nostalgia
$105.4 million
American Graffiti (1973)
In 1962, recent high school graduates cruise around the town.
Baby Boomers
$115 million

You’ll notice that a lot of important teen comedy movies are missing. American Pie (1999), for instance, shares a lot in common with the films above but takes place over several weeks. As do films like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and She’s All That (1999).

Blockers (2018) barely misses the “one crazy night” cut as it’s as much about the teens’ parents as about the kids themselves. Risky Business (1983) just misses the mark as well, since it transpires over multiple days. Other close calls include Cruel Intentions (1999) and Say Anything (1989).

What differentiates a film like Booksmart from these others, aside from being vastly better, is that it distills years worth of teen angst into a single night. It’s a snapshot of a time and a place we hate to love or love to hate but always where we ache to go again. Booksmart is so good we’ll be revisiting it again and again, generations hence.

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