LOS ANGELES – The rebel kid from high school just made the coming-of-age movie of summer.
Olivia Wilde protests lightly at the superlative while describing her high school years. But the independent city girl, who was raised in Washington, D.C., by two journalists, found herself at the elite boarding school Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where she chafed at the idea of “signing out” to go to town.
“Suddenly, I was in boarding school in the suburbs, in the woods. I got in trouble for dumb things because the idea of being monitored and signing in all the time really confused me,” laughs Wilde, 35, whose directorial debut, the critically adored “Booksmart,” hits theaters Friday.
The rules were hers to break on “Booksmart,” where Wilde stays behind the camera directing a story of best friends Molly (Beanie Feldstein), the forthright valedictorian, and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), gay and happily a wallflower, who arrive at graduation realizing that while they sacrificed a social life to ensure entry to prestigious colleges, their hard-partying classmates somehow got into the same schools.
Determined to change their own narrative, the BFFs embark on a raucous night to remember.
"Booksmart," which follows in a long tradition of generation-defining teen movies, from “The Breakfast Club” to “Dazed and Confused,” has earned a 100% fresh critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with New York magazine calling it “ a small miracle” and The New Yorker deeming the comedy “wise and humbling.”
But directing it required Wilde to get out of her own way.
Until six years ago, Wilde was the glam "It" girl, who earned her stripes playing a groundbreaking bisexual on the teen soap “The O.C.” before making waves on “House” and in the sci-fi “Tron” franchise.
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Then came an experimental phase. She starred in auteur-led films like Joe Swanberg’s highly improvised “Drinking Buddies” and Spike Jonze’s “Her.” She met Jason Sudeikis, got engaged and had two kids, Otis, 5, and Daisy, 2.
“I truly believe that having children – certainly for me, but I would argue for many women – made me feel a sense of confidence and inspiration that allowed me to move to a different stage of my life,” she says. “Once I had a baby, I was like, 'Wow, what can’t I do? This is extraordinary. It's miraculous what I can juggle.' ”
Wilde began to flex. She directed music videos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. She shot the pilot for HBO's "Vinyl" three weeks after giving birth to Otis.
“And I was like, 'Wow, I’m doing more than I was doing before kids,' " says Wilde. "Because somehow I’m now alerted to my own potential. It’s all confidence. For any woman that age is a really interesting time, breaking away from your younger self."
Then she found the script for “Booksmart,” a teen comedy that had been floating around for a decade before “it went into the dusty files of scripts that don’t ever get made,” says Wilde, who pitched herself to direct it in 2015. She and screenwriter Katie Silberman (“Set It Up”) began rewriting the script to reflect individualistic, fluid, radically inclusive Generation Z high school kids today.
Feldstein, whose brother Jonah Hill starred in 2007’s “Superbad” (a film many have deemed the male-led companion piece to “Booksmart”), says the resulting film "is saying we are more than just our bodies or who we are interested in sexually or where we come from or our religion. They play a part in who we are, but they are not the only thing about us."
Most refreshing? The R-rated, often-bawdy "Booksmart" rises above body-shaming and showcases a spectrum of sexuality without force-feeding preachy messages of acceptance.
“Like, can we just tell a story about a young gay woman without making a huge deal about her being gay? Can we just approach it the way we would if she were straight?” says Wilde. “We just went into it saying, let’s be aspirational in our reflection of this young generation, which is more evolved and fluid and woke, of course, than we ever were.”
In rehearsals, Wilde would encourage her young cast to speak up if a line didn’t feel quite right. “She let us go off and dance at the beginning of the movie because it’s just what came to us naturally,” says Dever. (It's how the girls would greet each other on the set, says Wilde, who released the first six minutes of “Booksmart" on YouTube last week.)
Off-camera, life is still morphing for Wilde. "One child is very portable. And two creates their own separate world and life and needs. It’s not as easy," she acknowledges.
“The day Otis came to visit (the set), he just kept yelling 'Cut!' because he realized that when you say cut, people hang out and talk and eat snacks and laugh. So he kept going, 'Cut! Cut!' ”
Still, her most memorable review came after Wilde screened the film at home in Brooklyn for Sudeikis, who plays the beleaguered principal.
"He was laughing so hard from the beginning to the end, really loudly. And I knew it wasn’t for me. I could tell it was real. I was like, 'OK, we made something and it’s working.' ”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Booksmart' is Olivia Wilde's ultimate flex. Here's how having kids drove her to direct.