Column: ‘Booksmart,’ ‘Euphoria’ and why we can’t stop going back to high school

Beanie Feldstein, left, and Kaitlyn Dever in “Booksmart” and Hunter Schafer, left, and Zendaya in “Euphoria.”
(Francois Duhamel/Annapurna Pictures | Eddy Chen/HBO)
Culture columnist/critic

I honestly cannot understand why high school still exists. With the possible exception of Congress, it’s difficult to think of another institution that is blamed for so much and credited for so little. Say the words — “high school” — and fully grown, highly successful people wince, or cringe, or burst into tears. As an adjective, it is purely pejorative.

And yet we haven’t bothered coming up with a new system of educating young adults, and balk at the notion of making major improvements to the old one. (Better paid teachers? Higher teacher-to-student ratios? Nah.)

Perhaps because if we did, the basis for all comedy, much literature and probably, now that you mention it, Congress, would simply melt away.


How you feel about your own high school experience is a personality tell. Few escape completely unscathed, but those who say they enjoyed it, or downplay the agony, are considered morally suspect by those who did and do not.

Is it a time and place where friendship blooms and creativity springs, a challenging maze of people and events that presents, in four years, a crash course in the intricacies of life — and material for a lot of funny stories?

Or is it is an institution designed to test human survival skills at a time when the humans in question are at their most emotionally and hormonally vulnerable?

Perhaps because of these tensions, high school, like murder, war and apocalypse, remains a tantalizing and popular topic of fiction, a place of extremes where both society and the human soul can be examined in wildly different ways.

Case in point: “Booksmart” v. “Euphoria.”


On the face of it, the film and the upcoming HBO series have a lot in common. They both feature two non-traditional female leads whose deep friendship arms them, to varying extents, against the perils of near-womanhood in the modern age: Cruel gossip and body-shaming, the painful crushes and capricious hierarchy of popularity, the oblivious or interfering adults, the parties that rage dangerously out of control and all that excruciating, conflicting desire — for passionate love and peace of mind, for security and freedom, for personal identity and the ability to fit in.

They’re also both set in high school, except those schools exist in two completely different universes.

In “Booksmart,” which is a comedy, high school is simply an obstacle course to be navigated on the way to that shimmering city on a hill — college. Molly (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) have run the gantlet successfully by simply ignoring everything but their shared goal. The gentle teasing of their peers — kids made popular by beauty, athletic feats or general coolness — bothers them not one whit. Amy is openly gay, Molly a bit heavier than the social ideal, but they are loud, proud, self-consciously modern women. They give each other daily pep talks, remain untouched by cyberbullying and are aware of porn — but only as a learning tool.

When they realize that they could have achieved their dream and had some fun too, they decide to attend the big “crazy” party one of their classmates is throwing, which sends them on a voyage through Los Angeles during which the only truly predatory male they meet is the setup for a joke. Alcohol and drugs are imbibed but for comic purposes only; their insecurities are real but not crippling; their love has no limits and their message is clear: High school was hard, but fun.

Not so much in “Euphoria.” Premiering Sunday, June 16, it is the first YA show to appear on HBO, and a drama. The conclusions you might draw about its very graphic sex/nudity/language are correct ones though probably do not go far enough (certain scenes are shocking even by HBO standards.) Based on an Israeli series, it revolves around Rue (Zendaya), a 17-year-old addict who has overdosed, been sent to rehab and is now returning home to a life of sobriety she has no intention of maintaining.

Rue is not concerned about college or anything much except finding whatever substance will make her feel better, if only for an hour. Until she meets Jules (Hunter Schafer), a young trans woman who has transferred to her school. They create a mutually affirming bond that is similar to Molly and Amy’s. But beyond the obligatory lockers and desks, their milieu bears no resemblance to that of “Booksmart.”

Now, some of the darkness could be attributed to Rue’s state of mind — she is an addict after all — but at ol’ Euphoria High every student is in the middle of some abusive, debauched or dangerous situation. Parties turn vicious, social media and the internet become instruments of degradation and exploitation, sex is invariably violent and devoid of love, and substance abuse is standard. (Indeed, one of the more honorable characters in “Euphoria” is Rue’s drug dealer.)

“Booksmart” has been criticized for sentimentalizing high school. “Euphoria” will no doubt get dinged for demonizing it, which is, I suppose, as it should be.

‘High school’ describes a portion of our academic system, but more than that it represents a period of transition — from child to adult.

“High school” describes a portion of our academic system, but more than that it represents a period of transition — from child to adult — that modern society still does not cope with very well. You can roll through those four years without so much as touching an illicit substance and still be drugged out — on hormones, anxiety, cultural awakening, social overload, boredom and/or the acrophobic realization that the launchpad countdown has started for real.

We remember those years as we experienced them — a perpetual oscillation of mood best described with hyperbole because the intricate realities are so numerous and fleeting they are virtually impossible to capture within a larger story; so many moments at that time feel like a larger story.

And that is why we come at high school from so many vastly different entry points. We need it, as one truly universal experience that we can actually remember, to unite us. And whether your memories are more “Friday Night Lights” or more “Riverdale,” more “Carrie” or more “High School Musical” — well, maybe that’s the point. Our experiences help make us who we are but so do our memories of them. And often, they’re not the same thing.

Certainly times have changed, in ways good and bad. Both “Booksmart” and “Euphoria” revolve around female characters who are far more complicated than, say, Tracy Flick in “Election” or even, and — don’t yell at me, superfans — Angela in “My So-Called Life” (although she was certainly revolutionary for her time). Both assume a new level of maturity and independence (parents do not feature heavily in either story) that is facilitated by the digital age, even as that modern access to information brings with it easier access to the most damaging experiences.

Gossip, once confined by personal rumor or words scratched on a bathroom wall, is now amplified by invasive video and pictures; relationships, which once required physical interaction, can evolve online, leading to mixed signals that can be amusing or predatory.

But in the end, both stories resonate despite their wildly different tones. You don’t have to be a drug addict to feel numb or lost or self-damaging, you don’t have to be hyper-focused valedictorian to suspect that some people are managing to get what they want while having way more fun, or that life seems to be occurring in completely different universes at the same time.

Especially in high school.