Over the past few years coming-of-age films have thankfully moved away from typical male-centric stories about teen boys getting drunk and trying to hook up with girls. The genre has come a long way from American Pie and Porky’s, the casual misogyny of the former and the blatant sexism of the latter. Following in the footsteps of Lady Bird and last year’s sublime Blockers, some of the comedies that premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival are continuing the trend of subverting tradition. Though the results are decidedly mixed, at least two of these films deliver a clever take on a familiar genre, blending humor and heart and throwing a little casual social awareness in the mix for good measure.
In Booksmart, longtime friends Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) have spent their entire high school careers preparing for college – devoting themselves to good grades, extracurriculars, and studying hard. On the eve of graduation, it dawns on them that maybe they’ve missed out on a key component of the high school experience by avoiding parties, so they decide that, for one night only, they’re going to really let loose.
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut is a confident, well-crafted film about friendship and self-discovery that’s just as sweet as it is smart and funny. Feldstein and Dever are exceptional alongside a supporting cast of familiar faces and newcomers, including Will Forte, Lisa Kudrow, and Jason Sudeikis. Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) and Billie Lourd (Star Wars) are real highlights as a pair of eccentric wealthy kids desperate to overcome their own privilege, even if it means using it in bizarre ways to make friends.
At the heart of Booksmart is a special attention to diversity and representation that’s pleasantly casual; Amy’s sexuality isn’t used for melodrama, but instead portrayed with the same normalcy as hookups between her straight peers. Discussions between Molly and Amy about social issues are approached in a similarly informal manner – Booksmart isn’t lecturing its audience, but speaking their language. Contemporary coming-of-age comedies often subvert familiar tropes, and what’s impressive about Booksmart is that Wilde and co-writers Susanna Fogel and Emily Halpern find clever ways to shake up those subversions. Perhaps the most successful element of the film is in how it speaks to audiences of all ages by emphasizing our shared humanity.
Good Boys is another coming-of-age comedy that blends humor and heart to excellent effect, this time from Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg – best known for their work on The Office and in the sadly short-lived series Hello Ladies. Directed by Stupnitsky from a screenplay he co-wrote with Eisenberg, Good Boys is set at a very specific, pivotal time in a youngster’s life. Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams), and Thor (Brady Noon) are 12-year-olds on the verge of entering junior high school – still young enough to be endearingly naive and sweet, not quite old enough to be crude sex monsters like their high school counterparts in various teen comedies.
As the title suggests, these are indeed good boys; they’re appalled by the pornography they find on the internet, they mistake a sex doll for a CPR dummy, and they believe drugs are highly dangerous. At the same time, these kids are dropping as many F-bombs as Deadpool. Stupnitsky and Eisenberg do an excellent job of reading the room: We’ve seen more than enough movies about the teen male experience, which makes Good Boys and its depiction of genuinely sweet – if incredibly foul-mouthed – kids somewhat refreshing.
Similar to Booksmart, Stupnitsky and Eisenberg’s film takes a casual approach to representation and social issues; though it’s set in a heightened version of reality, it respects what the real world – and specifically the world of kids – looks and sounds like. Of particular note is the moment in which the kids decide to practice kissing on the “CPR dummy,” but Lucas stops Max to remind him that he must get the woman’s consent before making physical contact. These kids have morals, but as with Booksmart, it never feels preachy or condescending. Silly though it may be, Good Boys packs a big heart, especially when the kids begin to realize the ways in which they’re growing apart and the potential implications of that maturity. That tenderness also really helps sustain Stupnitsky and Eisenberg’s simple comedic premise. Plus it’s just really funny watching kids like Jacob Tremblay say the F-word, if we’re being honest.
Less effective in its handling of the coming-of-age narrative is Little Monsters, an Australian zombie comedy starring Lupita Nyong’o as a kindergarten teacher saddled with a regressive man-child as she tries to keep her students alive during a field trip gone awry. Nyong’o should be the star of the film with her natural radiance and seemingly limitless well of charisma. Unfortunately, the lead is Alexander England’s Dave, a woefully immature man who was recently dumped by his longtime girlfriend over his inability to commit. Dave stays with his older sister and nephew, attending the aforementioned field trip with the latter so he can spend more time with the kid’s teacher, Miss Caroline (Nyong’o). Josh Gad co-stars as a children’s entertainer who gets stuck in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and reveals himself to be a rather profane womanizer who hates kids. As with Dave’s characterization, the stuff with Gad feels quite predictable and overly-familiar.
It’s Nyong’o and the cast of kiddos who keep Little Monsters engaging throughout, extending the life of its thin premise. Nyong’o is so dynamic and wonderful that she even makes a recurring ukulele cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” quite enjoyable. Where Booksmart and Good Boys find ways to subvert tropes, Little Monsters leans into them to its detriment, resulting in a film that’s just as cute, but nowhere near as clever as the others.