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In Praise of Buddy Comedy Sidekicks

Plus some other random thoughts about the hit indie smash ‘Booksmart’

In screenwriting classes, students are taught that to craft a great villain, you can’t think of him as being a bad guy. In his mind, he’s the hero of the story who’s being persecuted by the protagonist. After all, none of us want to think that we’re in service to somebody else’s story.

Likewise, in real life it’s not particularly exciting to be the sidekick, although we’ve all occasionally been put in that position. Sometimes, you’re Batman, but other times you’re Robin, playing second fiddle to your friend. It’s a weird spot to be in — the supporting actor, the second banana, the person standing next to the person who’s in the spotlight.

Those thoughts came to mind while watching Booksmart, the very fun teen indie that, like lots of comedies, is also a buddy picture. The story is about two high school seniors, Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), who are best friends, and while they both have important roles in the film, Molly is really more of the lead. She’s her class’s valedictorian and high-achiever. So where, exactly, does that leave Amy? Is she just the sidekick in life?

In comedies, it makes sense for the main character to have a buddy, someone to riff off of who’s a fool, a foil or a fount of wisdom. Will Ferrell has made a career working off of equally funny costars, although his character is almost always the top dog — at least as far as the film’s credits go. (In Talladega Nights, John C. Reilly’s Cal clearly looks up to Ricky Bobby, while in Step Brothers both men probably think they’re the movie’s true hero.) But for the most part, the sidekick is there to prop up the main character. Whatever the sidekick’s going through isn’t as important as what’s happening to the lead.

This, of course, isn’t exactly how things work in our daily existence. Often, you and your best friend have your own lives, your own worries and (to use some screenwriting terminology) your own plot goals. You’re there for one another, ideally, but you’re also thinking about yourself. A friendship like that is healthy and normal, but it can get complicated when one person’s needs start to dominate.

Booksmart doesn’t seem like that’s what it’ll be about in the early going. Instead, director Olivia Wilde appears to be telling a story about two smart friends who decide they’ve devoted too much of their high school lives to studying. The day before graduation, they plot to finally have fun and go to a party. Everybody else had a blast while Molly and Amy just hit the books — they’re not going to let any more time slip by.

From that setup, you know what you’re going to get: a rollicking R-rated comedy involving illegal substances, wacky hijinks and maybe even the occasional hookup. But while all that’s sufficiently amusing in the film, what I ended up liking most about Booksmart was its exploration of best friends, and how, sometimes, one person pulls on the other too much. In movies, one character’s usually the protagonist, but in real life we can come to resent it if we’re the permanent sidekick.

While Molly is presented as a driven, competitive person — someone who’s definitely going places — Amy is no slouch. She’s an honors student as well who’s also headed to a great college. Maybe at another high school Amy would have been the academic superstar that Molly is. Nonetheless, they’ve been friends forever, and they share a smug superiority, prizing the fact that they’ll make something of themselves while their peers end up going nowhere in life. (By the way, one of Booksmart’s best jokes is that, actually, these young ladies are mistaken: Plenty of their fellow graduates will be heading off to prestigious schools, too. Turns out, perfect grades aren’t everything.)

Amy has her own interests and her own love life — she’s gay, hoping that a cute classmate is into her — but she and the film spend a lot of time boosting Molly. Even though the women share a cute, dorky rapport, it’s clear that Amy takes her marching orders from her BFF. After all, it’s Molly who declares that they need to go to this blowout graduation party, setting the entire plot in motion. Amy has accepted that part of her job in their friendship is to build up Molly — and to let Molly boss her around in terms of how she should conduct her own life. Over the course of Booksmart, we see how much Molly comes to rely on Amy’s support and acquiescence. In some ways, she can’t quite function without Amy rooting her on and then staying in her own lane.

The movie that Booksmart will be most compared to is Superbad, which was similarly about two uncool high school seniors preparing to go out into the great big world. But that movie also cleverly subverted the idea of who, exactly, was the sidekick in the friendship. Was it Jonah Hill’s loud, insecure Seth or Michael Cera’s quieter Evan? (Or was Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s McLovin their sidekick?) That film slyly tweaked the best-friends formula by suggesting that while Seth thought he was the leader, the poised and unassumingly cool Evan might really have been the alpha dog all along — albeit the nerdiest alpha dog ever. That conflict in their friendship, prompted by the duo’s imminent departure to different colleges, inspired some friction, especially when Seth starts feeling like Evan is moving on without him, like he doesn’t need him anymore.

That same simmering tension over predetermined friendship roles plays out in Booksmart, and I imagine, lots of real-life friendships. When we’re young, we hold onto this idea that best friends need to have lots in common — that this accumulated stuff becomes the glue of the relationship. But Molly will come to discover that what matters to her doesn’t necessarily matter to Amy — and that Amy has too often willingly sublimated herself for the good of the friendship. They may be best friends, but it was never an equal partnership. Amy’s job was to make sure Molly mostly got her way. In a sense, Booksmart is about Amy realizing she doesn’t need to take on that job in order for them to be friends.

Among its other attributes, Booksmart is perceptive about how friends subtly tangle over getting their own needs met. Both actresses are great, but pay attention to how Dever plays Amy. At first, she seems like a prototypical sidekick, less confident than her pal. But as Booksmart goes along, there’s more and more feeling in the performance. We’re used to coming-of-age stories being about the movie’s main character. You could almost make the case that, in Booksmart, it’s really the sidekick who comes into her own. In a different movie, Amy would absolutely be the protagonist. Booksmart smartly lets her take up her space, realizing that even a second fiddle deserves her own spotlight.

Here are three other takeaways from Booksmart.

#1. Listen, I love my sister, too, but I’m not getting a tattoo of her name on my arm.

As you may know, Feldstein is the younger sister of Jonah Hill. (He dropped his last name professionally, although he gets a little weird when you ask him why.) In public, the two of them are very cute together, with Hill having conducted two separate interviews with Feldstein in recent years. Their online cuteness has become such a thing that sites like BuzzFeed have devoted whole posts to their bond.

The similarities between the two, though, go beyond the fact that they’re siblings. Feldstein may be 10 years younger than Hill, but they’ve developed similar careers as funny supporting actors who steal the movies they’re in. (She’s also done Broadway, starring in a 2017 revival of Hello, Dolly!) Additionally, I suspect they share a frustration with body issues. In recent years, Hill has slimmed down, although he still deals with interviewers making fun of his previous bulky frame, and Feldstein has talked about her own challenges, telling her brother in 2018, “Well, I struggled with my weight, as you know, growing up. I think I felt like other people wanted me to be something that I just wasn’t.” Nobody knows you like family.

Still, sibling love can go too far. I’m talking, of course, about Hill’s tattoo that he got last year to celebrate Feldstein’s Hello, Dolly! stint.

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HELLO, BEANIE! @beaniefeldstein ❤️

A post shared by Jonah Hill (@jonahhill) on

On the one hand, it’s a very sweet gesture. On the other, that’s a big tattoo! On a prominent part of the body! I love my little sister, too, but I’m not doing that. Maybe when she gets on Broadway.

#2. Let’s meet Olivia Wilde, music video director.

Booksmart is actress Olivia Wilde’s feature debut, but it’s not the first thing she’s directed. In 2011, she made a short, Free Hugs, and since then, she’s tried her hand at music videos. The first was in 2016 for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “No Love Like Yours.”

The moody clip (which was shot on an iPhone by Handmaid’s Tale director Reed Morano) found frontman Alex Ebert hanging out with modern-art dancers and a funeral procession, and when it debuted, I interviewed Wilde about her experience behind the camera. “The unique thing about directing a music video is that you aren’t the sole creative voice,” she told me. “You’re inherently collaborating with the artist, because you’re trying to create something that’s an accurate reflection of what they’re trying to say. And that’s what intrigues me about music videos: It’s a way to transcend the sound of a song and to transcend maybe even the fan base for that band and to bring other people into it and expand the whole experience. But you can’t, as a director, make it your own vision.”

Since then, she’s directed a clip for Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Dark Necessities,” although it’s a sign of how she’s thought of — primarily as an actress — that her biggest music video of this era is one that she was merely the costar of, Drake’s “Nice for What.”

Booksmart should definitely help change that perception. It’s a confidently made film, without a lot of needless flash or showoff-y moments. Wilde nails Molly and Amy’s relationship, building the whole movie out of their geeky rapport. And she does good work wedding pop songs to big emotional moments without making them seem like … well, like music videos.

All of this was on display even before her Edward Sharpe clip. Go back and watch Free Hugs and you’ll see a director who’s got a big heart when it comes to flawed, offbeat characters. And then notice how much Wilde has evolved as a filmmaker in the eight years since.

#3. Does everybody have an embarrassing puking-in-public story from high school? Or is that just a thing in teen comedies?

It’s probably not worthy of a Spoiler Alert to note that Booksmart features a scene in which a character is humiliated at the most inopportune moment by vomiting. This, of course, also happened in Superbad: In movies, underage characters often can’t handle their liquor and quickly hurl.

It actually made me wonder how many people lived through such experiences in high school. (By the way, a few months ago MEL asked its contributors to share their best vomiting stories, high school or otherwise.) For the record, I had my own teenage-puking trauma. But, unlike in these movies, it wasn’t because of alcohol — and thank god it wasn’t during a hookup.

As a kid, I had what my family called a nervous stomach. Nowadays, I would have probably been diagnosed with anxiety, but back then it basically meant that any alteration to my usual routine threw me for a loop. I would feel nauseous, like I was going to vomit at any second, and so, I had to be careful what (and if) I ate. This was a horrible feeling — I’m glad I outgrew it, but even the memory of it rattles me.

The worst incident involved my parents being out of town. I stayed the night with a friend and was planning on going with him to school the next day. I hoped I’d be fine, but that next morning — waking up in a strange home without my family around — I was in an all-out panic. I tried to remain calm, but by the car ride to school, I was terrified I’d puke at any second. I survived the trip, but my grand embarrassment was yet to occur. At school, as everyone walked to their first class, the hallways filled with my peers, I felt it coming. And there was no stopping it. You can’t slam the brakes on reverse peristalsis once it’s in motion — believe me, I tried. The vomit came out my mouth and seemingly went everywhere. Classmates freaked out. Some laughed. I was just standing there, ashamed. It remains, quite possibly, the most scarring thing that’s ever happened to me.

As part of my job, I see lots of characters vomiting in movies, often when they’re expressing shock or disgust. (It’s a lazy screenwriting thing: Our hero is so freaked out by some new piece of information he can’t not spew!) I know that the sight or sound of puking can make other critics a little queasy.

Me, I always breathe a sigh of relief and think, Thank God it’s someone else.