Sex Scenes: 'Booksmart' Takes Us on An Adornian Journey Through Gen Z Party Culture
The non-alienated life, according to Adorno, is one without material worries, wherein the protagonist gets lost in whatever is of interest at the moment.
Photo via IMDb.
In the grand tradition of highschool coming of age movies comes Booksmart, the directorial debut of Olivia Wilde. It’s another go at the trope of the teen comedy—one complete with a big party scene made iconic in eras past by movies like Pretty in Pink, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Can’t Hardly Wait, Dazed and Confused, and all the rest. It’s a look at the still largely undefined Generation Z, as imagined by millennial writers and a millenial director.
The movie is set the day before graduation of the class of 2019, with Molly (played by Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) as two inseparable friends who for four years have dedicated themselves completely to high-powered academic achievement, becoming experts at doing homework, while regularly shunning their peers with unambitious distractions that threaten their single-minded pursuit.
The triggering event for the movie’s development is for Mollie to discover that while she thought her peers were her sex-obsessed stoners, they were in reality just as diligent and will be going to equally prestigious schools—from Georgetown to Yale. A classmate nicknamed named “Triple A” because she supposedly picked up boys whose cars broke down to give them head, tells Molly that the difference between she and her is not caring about school but that she didn’t care only about school—being good at doing homework is not a personality.
The movie’s first emancipatory move is to show how ideologies often are way to coerce us into austerity, to convince us that we can’t have it all. Molly has realizes that she could have had more and now wants to go to Nick’s house party (the jock heartthrob with a Drake smile played by Mason Goodin). Amy, who came out as a lesbian in 10th grade, will reluctantly follow along because of her romantic interest in Ryan, a queer-coded skater girl.
The movie revels cinematographically in Gen Z coolness. Dana Stevens notices how “Booksmart trades less in humiliating displays of social hierarchy than your average high school comedy” and critics, like A.O. Scott, have focused on how the movie operates to undermine and show another side to the familiar types of teen comedies.
The attitude that these Gen Z teens exude is a “being nice is cool” quality, which is bolstered by how stylized and self-involved they are. This is the self-involvement of the meticulously constructed, identity focused post-Instagram generation, one that has been criticized as crassly narcissistic, but in Booksmart we can see how it can be liberating: when we are secure in our individual identity we don’t have to define ourselves through hierarchical relationships with other people, we don’t have to prove to be better than others by subjugating them or humiliating (as is the crux of the 80’s teen movie.)
When we are secure in our value we don’t have to question or justify who we are dating; our value doesn’t have to come from dating or fucking the most popular person but from our ability to love who we love. Popular Nick will have no problem in admitting that he has no interest in the normie “Hufflepuffs” but actually prefers “Ravenclaw,” the weirdos and atypical beauties. Another jock will say that he finds Molly cute—if it wasn’t for her personality, and for Amy being, gay is always just a fact that she readily accepts and is never a source of conflict. It’s only Molly who, being stuck in her hierarchical thinking of success and failure, of being better than others, can’t readily accept that she has a crush on Nick.
The non-alienated life, according to Adorno, is one without material worries, wherein the protagonist goes from party to party, Proust-like, living romantic relationships while traveling and getting lost in whatever is of interest at the moment. In the genre of the teen movie, the party is the occasion is the moment to show a real liberated space, to give the viewer an image of what happiness is supposed to be (whether it works out or not.)
Molly and Amy, despite thinking that they are disliked and unpopular, are welcomed warmly by everyone at the party, with the guests commenting that they are honored they are that the two girls finally showed up to hang out with them. Their perceived isolation was nothing but an illusion all along, and the two girls let go and finally feel like they belong. But of course a non-alienated life doesn’t preclude pain—and a teen movie needs it—and Molly and Amy will both end up heartbroken when (spoiler alert!) Nick and Ryan hook up in the pool. Amy will hook up with the acerbic, Kendall Jenner-esque Hope (Diana Silvers) in a house bathroom in a clumsy, endearing and altogether disastrous scene, but Hope will still show up at Amy’s place the morning after to exchange phone numbers.
If the utopic image of the party inherently can’t guarantee against heartbreak and embarrassing accidents, then an intrinsic part of a healthy relationships with others must be that there will be second chances, the shared ability to forgive the thousand small accidents that happen as we are trying to get to know each other. After-all, one of the reasons Molly and Amy are so close is because of the feeling that there would be no second chances: a bad grade, an infraction, a problem could mean for them to have their dreams and aspirations completely ruined. But part of justice, and a necessity for us to be free and happy and live our lives, lays in a guarantee that we will be allowed to have a go again and again.