Ah, the Teen Coming-Of-Age Sex Comedy. A staple of Hollywood summer offerings going back as far as “Animal House” (1978) & its many knockoffs like “H.O.T.S.” (1979) & “Little Darlings” (1980), it is a genre steeped in hetero-normative ideals, institutionalized homophobia, and patriarchal objecification. Doesn’t mean many weren’t funny…really funny…but, y’know…kinda cringe-worthy now. It’s a style that has persisted from “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” (1982), “Porky’s” (1982) & “Risky Business” (1983), continuing on to “American Pie” (1999) and “Varsity Blues”(1999), sliding past “The Girl Next Door” (2004), the British film, “Cashback” (2006) (based on the Oscar-nommed short of the same name), and “Superbad” (2007) all the way to the recent, and well-reviewed, “Everybody Wants Some” (2016).
The basic premise has always consisted of two main threads; a protagonist’s journey to achieve love and/or carnal knowledge (“we’re gonna get laid!” – ‘Animal House’), and humor borne of the protagonist’s embarrassing misadventures along the way (intercourse with a pie – ‘American Pie’). So how does one change such a tried and true formula to match our changing expectations, glacial though they may be? Well, films written and directed by women is a terrific start, but not always a successful one (see the forty seven “Bring It On” films). Or, perhaps make them wildly outrageous, a la “The Hangover” or “Something Wild”. But the best way might be to treat the protagonist with respect and some decency, and to create a journey borne of innocence, not horniness. And if the world of that character is set up well enough, then none of the ‘teen comedy’ humor gets lost. In fact, in this manner, it becomes more realistic, more funny…we feel what they feel, we see ourselves and our own childhood ineptitude through their eyes – as opposed to observing from afar through the prism of the sexist bully and/or object of lust, laughing at the loser – the schlemiel – when watching those earlier films.
So it is with great fanfare that Hollywood has begun to release films within the genre that purport to espouse a differing point of view – movies from the perspective of women, the LGBT community, or, for the first time ever, even preteens. This year’s pair of attempts include a film that tackle the first two, “Booksmart”, and one that illustrates the latter, “Good Boys”.
(Side note: I would strongly suggest you go watch 1999’s “But, I’m A Cheerleader”, which is phenomenal, as is last year’s dramedy, “Princess Cyd”, for the best of that very small canon of LGBT teen comedies.)
So how did these two fair?
Directed by Olivia Wilde
In this instance? Well beyond expectation. Everything about this film feels real, even if most of its situations are absurd. The two girls in question are nerds, but nerds with purpose. They CHOSE the outcast life, and as a result there exists an actual innocence about them. Even their aims are innocent…to simply have fun for a single night. Not to get laid, not to get totally wasted – just a night of high school fun. And,as a result, the evening’s twists and turns act as the film’s antagonist.
But in the wrong hands, even THIS could’ve been turned in to just another “sexual awakening” romp. But director, Olivia Wilde, in her feature debut no less, has managed to instill an overall tone of empathetic respect…respectful to their naivety, their lack of experience and their abject fear of what every other kid seems to have lived through with ease. Every time the film starts to veer into the realm of its predecessors, Wilde brings it back to actual discovery – of the kind we recognize. She makes us laugh WITH them, not at them.
And thank all the film gods that Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever inhabit the leads. Feldstein, who played Saoirse Ronan’s best friend in “Lady Bird” with such brilliance, is terrific. “Lady Bird” proved she had the chops, and this script fits her bad-assery to perfection. But Dever is the true miracle worker here. Concurrently timid and strong, sometimes showing both in the same facial expression, she is a wonder…and an absolute star on the rise. Many of the other kids in the film are equally strong, playing..uh…really strange kids…who, incidentally, match people we forgot we knew in High school with more than a little accuracy. Skyler Gisondo leads the way with an eagerness to please that is utterly earnest. Billie Lourd is…bizarre, fearless and perfect. And Diana Silvers and Molly Gordon play typical Teen Sex comedy roles with as much honesty and weariness as we’ve seen in a long time…maybe since Jennifer Jason Leigh in “Fast Times”.
The adults in the film are fine, but much more two-dimensional than any of the kids. Most notable among them are Jason Sudekis and Jessica Williams…oh, and a bizarre, but perfect turn from Mike O’Brien. Hilarious.
The production elements are fine, if unremarkable. The film looks like a Teen Sex Comedy. The score from Dan the Automator, is okay, if not exactly adventurous or ground breaking (and, why oh why did they put dialogue on every song of the score’s recording?!). The best bit is probably the costumes from April Napier. They are spot on and tell us gobs about each of these characters.
I loved this film. Loved it.
Directed by Gene Stupnitsky
Okay…so, it’s reasonable in our current www dot searchable dot existence to expect someone with irreverent/NSFW sensibilities to embark on this kind of cinematic experiment: showcasing the horrors of being sixth-graders in a world where post-adolescent knowledge is a mere click away. I’m guessing when Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg walked in to the offices of Point Grey to pitch it…a super high Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg looked at each other, burst out laughing, and said…”absolutely!”
It has all the ingredients of being an incredibly funny, inappropriate and cringe-worthy film. And it’s close…really close. The jokes are good (if not consistently so), the kids try like hell, are well cast, and the plot is both simple and naive enough for us to watch without any actual discomfort. But, it suffers from the worst symptom a comedy can possess…it’s dull. REALLY dull. It has almost no movement. In every successful film in the genre there is a tangible goal…something the main characters must accomplish before they all turn in to pumpkins. Here the goal is utterly nebulous, certainly not complex enough to sustain ninety minutes. As a result, it grinds to a halt almost every time it starts to get going. Irreverent and boring is a bad combination. Especially when the trailer for the film sets it up so well. In fact, the best parts of that trailer aren’t actually in the released version of the film (???).
But, as mentioned, the kids try like hell. Led by SAG Best Supporting Actor nominee, Jacob Tremblay (“Room”), the triumvirate of him, Keith L. Williams and Brady Noon are perfect for the film. Each possessing a key element in an expedition such as this (Tremblay’s leadership skill, Williams’ intelligence, and Noon’s bravado), they are not to blame for the film’s shortcomings. Well, sort of. It’s hard to tell what came first, the badly written joke, or the joke poorly delivered. Regardless, we root for them, but don’t laugh often enough with them…or at them…or near them. Kind of a waste of good work by three children. Molly Gordon and Midori Francis are very good as wise high-schoolers tasked as both antagonists and allies. And Will Forte, who has five minutes in BOTH films, is a little better here.
No, I think the blame falls on Stupnitsky’s direction. He directs the entire film like it’s a sketch show. It’s almost as if they edited the film in pieces, and slapped it together. But this ain’t no Kentucky Fried Movie (speaking of inappropriate). It’s a single narrative feature. Perhaps if Stupnitsky and Eisenberg had allowed someone a little removed from the film’s genesis to direct? Hard to say. What I can say is it’s a snoozer with some very funny bits…which is simply not good enough when films like “Booksmart” are released in the same month.
Both of the following trailers spoil good jokes and are very NSFW (although you should watch the “Good Boys” trailer – it’s a lot better than the film):