It’s been a frantic few weeks in nerd culture. The Marvel Cinematic Universe wrapped up more than 10 years of story build-up with Avengers: Endgame. Game of Thrones concluded after eight seasons on HBO. And the nerd-centric sitcom The Big Bang Theory closed up shop on CBS after more than a decade on the air. What makes all these events so notable, though, is that they aren’t the niche interests they might have been 20 years ago. Avengers: Endgame is going to make around $3 billion worldwide. Game of Thrones was the biggest appointment-viewing event on television. The Big Bang Theory went a little quieter in its 12th season, but spent much of its run as the most popular sitcom on television. Nerd culture, as so many people have pointed out over the past decade, is really just popular culture at this point.
But where does that leave portrayals of nerds in popular culture? With nerd stuff consumed by tens of millions of people, even defining “nerd” has become tricky. It’s commonly come to mean someone with an above-average level of interest or expertise in any number of subjects, from pop-culture fandom to the ins and outs of brewing beer to sports. But that sounds suspiciously like a description of any human being with interests and / or leisure time. Even so, the on-screen version of nerdery has hung around. The Big Bang Theory used a fairly broad, traditional definition — aficionados of both real and fictional sciences, sometimes socially inept — that somehow felt condescending and flattering at the same time. Plenty of movies have done worse. (Think of Pixels, trying to refashion Adam Sandler’s usual regular-schlub persona as a nerdy underdog.) So, for that matter, has real life, with toxic fandom revealing plenty of rage and male entitlement below that nerdy-underdog exterior.
In this context, Olivia Wilde’s new comedy Booksmart feels revelatory, even when it closely resembles last-day-of-high-school shenanigans from other movies. Specifically, it’s easy to describe the film as a female-led version of the masterful 2007 comedy Superbad. Booksmart even stars Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s sister, in the Jonah Hill role of the more foul-mouthed and quick-to-anger half of an inseparable teenage friendship. Kaitlyn Dever is in the Michael Cera role: softer-spoken, more cautious, and droll. Like Superbad, Wilde’s film gets a lot of comic mileage from its lead actors’ ability to create a funny, believable relationship. Feldstein and Dever are both terrific in it.
But unlike Superbad, which made its characters’ academic achievements secondary to their goal of getting laid before college, Booksmart is very much about two female nerds. Molly (Feldstein) is ruthlessly ambitious, the kind of person who sees student government as a springboard to the world stage. Amy (Dever) is more of a sensitive activist. They both have Ivy League college plans. Even their night of crazy partying has more of an academic bent than what their Superbad counterparts have in mind. Molly and Amy have spent all of high school following the rules, working hard, and hanging out with each other. Now, they want to make up for lost time.
Molly pushes that narrative harder than Amy, because she’s learned something that infuriates her. While she’s always thought of herself as more serious-minded and success-bound than her hard-partying classmates, on the last day of school, she finds out that plenty of cool, popular, and / or slacker-ish students are also attending elite colleges in the fall. At least one will even be at Yale with her. The cognitive dissonance is enough to send her spiraling into an identity crisis.
Intentionally or not, that crisis mirrors the shifting definition of American nerdiness. Molly and Amy’s status as cross-disciplinary academic geeks (more oriented toward the humanities than math or science, but valedictorian-level achievers regardless) is a relatively traditional portrayal of nerds, though no one ever calls them that, as characters in an ’80s movie might. While Molly does swoon over a male love interest’s ability to correctly name her Hogwarts house, the girls generally don’t bond over bits of pop culture arcana. They’re nerds because they’re good at school.
And the eclectic mix of popular teenagers Molly initially disdains includes plenty of characters who might have been misfits or outcasts in older teen movies: theater kids, skateboarders, gregarious goofballs, and a mysterious weirdo played by Billie Lourd. Though Molly’s desire to do some catch-up partying is a more theoretical and less urgent driver than the libidinous motivations of Superbad, it comes from the very contemporary realization that there are other ways of being smart, successful, and even nerdy than just fighting for straight As.
The anger and defensiveness this knowledge initially brings out of Molly isn’t explicitly tied to longtime gamers or Star Wars fans bristling at the mainstreaming of “their” culture. But she has a similar desire to define herself by owning her nerdiness. If she isn’t being rejected for her academic prowess, that leaves open the possibility that she’ll be rejected for herself. Amy doesn’t place as much importance on trouncing the normies, but she has a stereotypical nerd’s timidity in romance — in this case, creating a nerdy gap between her out-and-proud gayness and her actual life experience.
These parallels are more sensitive than toxic because of the movie’s rare focus on the experience of young women. So often, female nerdiness is defined through men: the traditional cinematic girl nerd was a wallflower who becomes desirable to a protagonist when she removes her glasses and lets down her hair. More recently, girl nerds have become fanboys’ dream girls who keep their glasses, but show off their knowledge of Star Trek trivia or their skills at video games. Booksmart, with a screenplay credited to four women, nimbly avoids defining the girls through their looks or their relationships. Neither aspect of teen life is ignored entirely — Molly is most wounded when she overhears a classmate talking about how she’s cute, except for her personality, and the movie introduces a number of potential romantic interests — but neither story element distracts from the film’s central friendship.
At times, Booksmart feels a bit more contrived and cartoonish than the very best of its teen-comedy subgenre. But its girl-nerd POV never feels gimmicky, in large part because it’s divorced from lazy cultural signifiers. (Well, aside from its use of rap music as an intended ironic counterpart to the girls’ dorkiness.) The movie doesn’t find innate goodness in their status as nerds. While it will probably speak to an underserved audience segment of smart, socially awkward women, it avoids audience flattery.
And as such, Wilde’s film both rebukes easy categorization and reclaims old-school nerdiness. It’s a Revenge of the Nerds evolution that recognizes the futility of vengeance, and a feminist-nerd story that recognizes its characters’ privilege. The movie recognizes both the agonies of caring intensely about something (in this case, doing well in school), the ecstasies of finding someone else who shares that intensity, and the further agonies of separating from that person via graduation. If “nerd culture” is going remain a distinct and meaningful idea, it’s important for movies like Booksmart to remind people that nerd-dom is more than getting angry at Game of Thrones on the internet.
Booksmart opens wide in American theaters on May 24th, 2019.