The high school coming-of-age comedy will get a much-needed reimagining with the release of Booksmart, the feature directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde. The film, which made its world premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival back in March, will screen early this Friday before its wide release next week through United Artists Releasing / Annapurna Pictures. It has received critical acclaim, currently holding a 100 percent Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of publishing.
According to its official description, the film follows “best friends and academic overachievers, Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein), who thought keeping their noses to the grindstone gave them a leg up over their play-minded peers. But, on the eve of their graduation, these type-A ride-or-dies get a hardcore reality check and realize they may have missed out. Determined to make up for lost time, they decide to cram four years of not-to-be-missed fun into one night — a chaotic adventure no amount of book smarts could prepare them for.”
Wilde tapped vets Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte and Jason Williams as supporting characters, while assembling a stellar group of up-and-coming actors for the high school ensemble, including Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Diana Silvers, Molly Gordon, Austin Crute, Victoria Ruesga, Nico Hiraga, Eduardo Franco — and a name familiar to some, Mason Gooding.
Yes, Gooding is the youngest son of Cuba Gooding, Jr. After making appearances on shows like Ballers and The Good Doctor, Gooding is ready for his breakout, making his feature film debut with Booksmart, where he plays Nick, one of the senior class’ most popular students.
Speaking recently with Shadow And Act, Gooding said that there are big differences between him and his character Nick, “I was nothing like Nick in high school. I was way too dorky and resentful and cynical to ever say I was similar to him [laughs]. But in high school, I was able [to] look within from without. The way that people like him…this really popular, effortless, cool kind of people would act…I would try and replicate it and I would be like, ‘This is why people love them so much, and this is why people would gravitate towards them.’ So that when it came time to play him on screen, it was really just me using what I had learned as a kid who wasn’t like that to be like that.”
His high school experience in general also differed from his characters and the others in the film. “You know, I went to a small private school in West LA called Winward, and my experience there probably pales in comparison to the fun that I’m sure Nick and his friends have,” he said. “And we shot the film at Van Nuys High School. It seemed like they had this big community around it, and they had these different groups that all sort of function in and of one another. It differs from how I grew up, but I understood it because of the way that Olivia instructed us to sort of interact with one another.”
Speaking on working with Wilde for her feature directorial debut, Gooding called it a “dream come true.” He explained, “She is really the actor’s director and in that she understands how to create an atmosphere and this sort of rapport with her crew and her actors to bring out the most collaborative and comfortable environment that you could ever ask for. I never felt like it was me against them, it was always this, you know, I give you give a scenario where whatever was put into the pot was shared by all people. It was this cacophony of hard work, love, passion that poured into different aspects of the film that hopefully came out in the final product that the audience can experience these things with us, as we had fun making it. Hopefully it just kind of exudes that positivity and love that we sought out to keep throughout filming.” The bond that the expansive ensemble created off-screen resonates on-screen as well. “You learn by doing. That love Beanie and Kaitlin, who lived together, and Olivia created…we all fed off of it and became friends because of it. I hung out with Eduardo and Nico, who portray Tanner and Theo respectively, off-set as many times as I could. I would hang out with really whoever was available to sort of create these relationships with one another so that when it came time to film it, it didn’t feel like people who worked together but like people who live together, people who loved one another. It was the easiest thing I had to do so far in my career. It was just to love these people and be friends with them because I love them and are friends with them in real life. It’s really just a matter of translating it on the screen, which happened, I think, effortlessly.”
From the jump, it is expected that Booksmart will garner comparisons to other comedies in the same vein, specifically Superbad. But Booksmart is the first that will be for Gen Z. “What’s funny is when we started filming, Olivia said she wanted this film to be this sort of Fast Times, Superbad, Clueless for this generation. She wanted this to speak for that group of people that maybe haven’t had that voice up until now,” Gooding said. But, the generation gap isn’t what just sets the film apart from the rest, according to Gooding. “The positivity that exudes both from the jokes and the script, as well as the characters, is unlike that of most films I’ve seen, specifically the ones prior to the time that Booksmart is trying to speak to. It seems like in the past, jokes come from making fun of someone else or putting someone else down specifically to further your own comedic enjoyment. I love those movies, but Booksmart is able to not have to rely on that in order to tell a compelling, hilarious, touching story that ultimately empowers and inspires people. That’s what happened to me. I don’t know if everyone else will feel the same, but I certainly felt loved and seen.”
As his first film role, there was a certain pressure on the young actor, but it’s not what you think. “The pressure I felt was certain to do right by my director, who I cherish forever as my first feature director. And to do right by Annapurna for ultimately taking a risk on not just myself, but the other actors who hadn’t been given that chance to showcase their abilities in a feature film before,” he said. “But everything else was something I totally felt comfortable doing. Acting is what I love. It was fun to learn to move the way of the film and to be Nick and to play this role opposite such amazing talents. I really wanted to make sure I did the best of my ability every time I came in. Ultimately, if that’s what you’re thinking about or if you want to do your best, if you push yourself to be your best, that’s usually what you’ll get out of it. I just hope that everyone who sees the movie understands that this is a character and this is a movie for them, for them to feel seen and noticed and respected.”
Gooding has two major things that he wants viewers to take away from the film, one of which he referred to as an emotional reason. “I’d like people to take the positivity that each character and person in the film brings to one another and their groups of people that they love to their own lives. I want young men to feel like they can tell their best friends that they love them, that they look good or that they’re smart, that they’re this or that. I want young women to support one another rather than tear each other down. I want the positivity that the film brings to be brought into the lives of the audience so they can bring it every time they interact with another individual.” The second takeaway is related to the comedic and what he calls “genuine” aspects of the film. “The compliment-offs that Molly and Amy have throughout the movie…I want that to start being a thing that people do, whether it be, you know, some sort of challenge that we’re posting on Instagram or something that people see and just do in their personal lives. I’d like that to become a sort of standard for friendships nowadays [laughs].”
As for what’s next for Gooding (who’ll appear in the upcoming Netflix feature, Let It Snow, opposite Kiernan Shipka and Shameik Moore), he has two big names he wants to work with. “There are so many actors and actresses that I would kill to be anywhere near …Donald Glover being probably number one in my book because I love absolutely everything he does both as himself and Childish Gambino. Beyond that, I think Issa Rae is just such an inspiration and everything she does and I think there’s a lot to learn from them both. If you know them, let them know! [laughs].”
Booksmart is in theaters for a special screening this Friday, May 17. It’ll be released widely on May 24, 2019.
You can view the first six minutes of the film, which have been released early, below:
Photo: Annapurna/United Artists Releasing