There’s something inherently depressing about a coming of age film with a protagonist over thirty, or at least there should be. I have no desire to condemn everyone beyond their twenties, in a band and having trouble making rent. Yet if someone makes a movie about a thirtysomething rocker with no obvious prospects I don’t want it to be a cheery whimsical romp through empty record stores and the dive bars of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Portland, Oregon. Instead I want to see something like Craig Johnson’s “True Adolescents.”
Our antihero is Sam, an aspiring Seattle rocker with a failing relationship and no job, played by a perfectly cast Mark Duplass. He’s an egocentric, miserable jerk with crippling bitterness and a complete lack of real concrete motivation beyond his failing band. Then his girlfriend kicks him out and he has to seek refuge with his suburban aunt, Sharon (Melissa Leo), and her son, Oliver (Bret Loehr). It’s an interesting riff on what Christopher calls the “homecoming of age” movie, in which near adults return to their families and grow up a bit. Yet in this scenario Sam is only with his aunt for a few days before he ends up on a camping trip with Oliver and his friend Jake (Carr Thompson). Off to the woods with two kids, presumably the film’s “true adolescents” in the flesh, Sam is thrown into direct conflict with his own lack of adult perspective.
He’s an entirely unlikeable character, yet you find yourself wanting him to change and grow up so that you can like him later. Therein lies the brilliance of the performance and the crucial balance of the film. Johnson and Duplass don’t shy away from Sam’s rough edges and harsh bitterness but rather put them front and center to tell a real story. In the spirit of “Greenberg” and “You Wont Miss Me” this film dripps with self-loathing and emotional darkness, just as it simultaneously tells a tale of growth and redemption. In each of these character studies the antihero is a bitter, unstable wreck and necessarily so. Roughness and acerbity strengthen the redemptive potential of the film, grant real genuine stakes to the narrative and allow these occasionally caustic characters to inspire as well as irritate.
The film also articulates a fascinating balance between the tribulations of adolescence and the midlife crisis. Like Ben Stiller’s Roger Greenberg, Sam is floating amongst a number of age labels. He behaves like an teenager and seems incapable of growing up, yet he has also experienced more than thirty years of life. His idols are the rock stars that died at 27, and as he lists off Cobain, Joplin, Morrison and others to his younger cousin it all seems rehearsed. He seems to be constantly pondering his own condition, consciously or otherwise, trying to discover the direction one takes beyond that fateful 27th year. And like Stella Schnabel’s diabolically unstable Shelly Brown in “You Wont Miss Me,” Sam seems determined to entertain. Yet these quirky moments of performance lead to little more than an unsettled audience, further driving home his own anxieties and the awkwardness of his developmentally untenable position.
Too many films take the gleeful route, portraying these characters in a strangely positive light that goads us into adoring them against our better judgment. Miranda July’s “The Future” is exactly this sort of unfortunate twee mess. Her characters are confronted by a fear of getting older and end up dancing on YouTube and having magical hallucinations. It’s as if the film tries to avoid articulating its own theme, rather than actively flesh out its darker necessities or implications. The contrast drives home the importance of honesty in character development and presentation, and makes “True Adolescents” all the more refreshing. July’s greatest weakness, moreover, lies in the dramatic context around her protagonist and that is where Johnson’s quieter film shines.
When a protagonist lives in his or her own world, self-absorbed and unable to relate to others, sometimes growth needs to force its way in from the outside. “The Future,” as well as “Me and You and Everyone We Know” are filled with figures built from nothing but July’s misapprehension of humankind. “True Adolescents” matches Sam with two teenage kids that are neither paragons of perceived normality nor misanthropes like himself. They’re genuine teenagers with genuine teenage problems. Oliver is clearly still reeling from his parents’ implied divorce, while Jake is troubled by the extraordinary confusion of budding adolescent sexuality. All of this youthful anxiety initially goes right over Sam’s head and he responds like a selfish child. There are times when you can’t help but hate him on behalf of these kids, provoked by his nasty verbal reflexes and complete lack of perspective.
Yet anything less would ruin the film’s potency. Not only is he forced by the wilderness and circumstance to act like an adult, but he is also confronted with a clear example of adolescent emotions in actual teenagers. More than anything else the last stages of “True Adolescents” feel genuine and whole, a meditation on coming of age that will leave you refreshed.
“True Adolescents” is playing at reRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn through August 4th with an additional show on Monday the 8th. It will be released on DVD and VOD on August 30th.
Recommended If You Like: “Greenberg”; “You Wont Miss Me”; “Ceremony”