To pick an all-time favorite high school film is a deeply personal process, perhaps more so than other film genres. No one makes it out of adolescence unscathed, so preference of high school movies are inevitably tied to your own lived experience — a mixture of resonance with a character, a spark of recognition in a story that matches whatever specific traumatic hell you were likely dragged through, and perhaps, if you somehow managed to occasionally have fun, maybe a brief stirring sensation of nostalgia.
While I have an essential shortlist of high school films that tap into my personal truths, I feel that in terms of truly encapsulating the overarching feeling of high school — its ridiculous social weight, its silliness, its impossible-to-describe and incredibly intense platonic intimacy — Superbad is the elite high school film. I felt so disjointed in high school, simply because everyone feels disjointed in high school. Frequently, the only meaningful touchstone for me cinematically was the world offered in Superbad. Only there was the impossible strangeness of the modern, suburban American teenage experience so giddily encapsulated, so accurately reflected — different details, different kids, but an uncanny accuracy in its presentation of teenage nights spent fucking around in a way that was both underwhelming and pivotal to developing as a person.
Superbad is also in a genre sweet spot — it feels more structurally sound than most of its stupid sex comedy counterparts (as, after many watches, I realized it is essentially a classical hero’s journey playing out with teens on the hunt for alcohol), funnier than its romantic comedy predecessors (as almost every scene has something both quotable and deeply funny, buoyed by extremely delightful early performances from now settled comedic actors — the likes of Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Seth Rogen, Bill Hader, and Emma Stone), and is less patronizing than the general trend of clumsy corporate attempts to package whatever is “in” at the moment (the reference points, dialogue, and effortful crassness of the teenagers of Superbad often feel like they transcend any sort of distinct period of time — they are simply quintessential teens).
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg began writing what would eventually become Superbad when they were thirteen, and it shows. Superbad taps into something so visceral about the suburban teenage experience in modern America, accurately captures the sensation of perennially feeling like you’re failing imagined social codes, like you are always on the precipice of being in on something (a party, having sex with a girl, having some sort of interesting experience to show off at college), but you are just slightly too much of a loser or too insecure or too alienated to quite make it.
From the opening moments of Superbad, we know that our protagonists Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are extremely codependent and extremely intimate, with a deep knowledge of each of their respective adolescent urges, desires, and pasts. They are on the phone until they drive to school together, then go together into the 7-11 for their morning sodas and Red Bulls, then go together into the same home economics class. They talk and talk and talk, an onslaught of conversation that is almost entirely centered around sex — what porn websites they’re excited to sign up for in college, how they handle their pesky boners, how they are going to woo their respective crushes Jules (Emma Stone) and Becca (Martha MacIsaac). Seth bemoans the fact that he had too much sex early on in high school, and has not spread it out evenly, fears that the girls in college will think he “sucks dick at fucking pussy,” to which Evan mournfully responds, “You’re like Orson Welles.”
Sexual encounters, parties, and drinking are rare events to be fastidiously logged and then lied about to seem cooler. Superbad understands the strange ecosystem of high school — while some kids in the film end up at more parties than others, no one in Superbad fits into some consistently tidy label. There are none of those quirky montage moments where we see the great divides of the school, the jocks versus the nerds versus the band kids, or whatever ideal is so often suggested in teen films of the early aughts. Instead, like actual high school, everyone sort of knows each other, and everyone sort of feels both impossibly lame and like they are so close to finally figuring it all out.
On one of the final nights of high school, Seth, Evan, and their buddy Fogle (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) are offered what they think is finally their “in.” Seth’s crush, Jules, has requested that they help provide the alcohol at her party when Fogle gets a fake ID. Finally, an opportunity to prove themselves, to party and have sex and have all their wildest high school dreams come true in one night.
But, like all adolescent fantasies, none of this goes according to the dreamy, sunshiney vision. Fogle’s fake ID — perhaps the most iconic reference point of Superbad — is a mess, where he claims he is a 25 year old organ donor from Hawaii names McLovin’. The boys lose track of each other, lose their car, repeatedly lose the alcohol they desperately cling to in hopes of wooing the girls they like (Evan’s offer to buy Becca her favorite vodka is self-described as a “pimp move” in his nervous, shaky, white boy voice).
A sprawling adventure ensues, Fogle taking on the new persona of McLovin’ when he is taken under the wing of some incredibly inept cops, Seth and Evan struggling through a chaotic adult party, rushing around buses, running from cops, in hopes of finding booze. Superbad understands the magic of a chaotic night in high school is less about the success in partaking in some drinking or having sex or partying, more about the accumulation of ridiculous anecdotes in your struggle to achieve these adult goals with so few resources. The closest I get to nostalgia for high school is in Seth and Evan’s giddy retelling of their adventures as they walk home, fall asleep in their sleeping bags, recap the night while hungover at the mall the next day.
Superbad was a staple for my friends and I in high school. My friends used to tease that I was most like Becca, the object of Evan’s affections (who is actually pining after him as well, something Evan cannot pick up on because he finds himself so cringeworthy — a feeling validated by his stumbling when talking to her, and his iconic accidental punching of her boob in the hallway mid-conversation). Becca is sweet and shy at school and then a menace (or the immature, silly, bumbling, unserious, teenage version of a menace) after a bit of tequila, raunchy and desperate and also completely out of her element. It was a fair enough descriptor for my strange two-sided persona in high school, but I always honestly felt most like Seth and Evan. A little weird, perceived as some nerdy loser, desperate to partake in some debauchery, to have more experiences, but still so painfully adolescent. At the end of the day, talking about the crass, explicit, teenage life I yearned for with my best friends actually probably felt as fulfilling as trying to clumsily enact it.
Superbad is flat-out silly. It runs head-on into its more ridiculous and stupid gags, of which one could list on and on forever — Seth’s compulsive drawing of dicks, Evan and Becca’s horrendous almost hook-up in which his attempt at dirty talk is to tell her that she, too, would have a nice penis if she had one, McLovin’ unexpectedly having the night most teenagers would dream of only when his friends ditch him and he pretends to be something and someone he totally isn’t — but if anything, this, too, feels true to the high school experience. It all feels so big until you step back and realize it’s fucking ridiculous. Even at fifteen years old, Superbad still offers an accurate encapsulation of that difficult-to-describe, yet near-universal, feeling in an hour and a half teen comedy — what a stupid, fantastic cinematic gift.
Superbad was released in theaters on August 17, 2007 by Columbia Pictures.