One of the big problems with stories about adolescence is that they’re often so impersonal because they rely too heavily on “universal” experiences. Early adulthood is filled with so many common “first’s” — first loves, first jobs, first fights, first breakups — that it’s easy for filmmakers and screenwriters to hit enough broad emotional and narrative beats so that it will appeal to a wide audience. But the best films about adolescence capture the feeling of youth by adopting a specific lens, illustrating that stories that invest in quotidian detail and individual life experience will always shine brighter than the one’s that lean on trite cliches and false platitudes.
Greg Mottola’s “Adventureland” is one of the best post-collegiate movies in recent years because it embodies the hazy anxiety and profound boredom of being trapped in your hometown, knowing you want more but unable to achieve it. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) was all set to go to Europe after graduation before attending Columbia’s School of Journalism, but after his alcoholic father (Jack Gilpin) gets downsized at work, his funds are re-routed to pay the bills, and now he’s stuck back home in Pittsburgh. Learning he’s grossly overqualified for most manual labor jobs, he resigns to working a job at the cheap, run down amusement park Adventureland where he’s stuck behind game booths with the equally over-educated Joel (Martin Starr) and Em (Kristen Stewart), an NYU student and the object of James’ affection. “Adventureland” takes place over one summer as James bonds with his co-workers, receives advice from maintenance worker and resident “cool guy” Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds, in one of his best performances) who is rumored to have “jammed with Lou Reed,” and falls in love. It ambles along without much urgency, luxuriating in passionate conversations about hopes and fears, stoned bumper car rides, and the casual disappointments that comes with being aware and alive.
From the house party that opens the film to the dark, empty suburban streets of Pittsburgh, Mottola imbues “Adventureland” with pitch-perfect detail that charges the film from its first minutes. Though “Adventureland” is set in 1987, Mottola doesn’t play “spot the reference” when it comes to the period landscape, instead treating it like seasoning, keeping it in the frame without constantly calling attention to it — it doesn’t exist in dialogue, but rather in clothes, the lame discotheque, the drone of Reagan’s voice on the Brennan family TV. More than just period features, there are scenes in the film that feel ripped from Mottola’s (or someone’s) life, like James almost being knifed by a customer after he cheats at a carnival game, Joel being rejected by fellow games worker Sue (Paige Howard) for being Jewish, the fact that Adventureland never stops playing Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus,” or even just a tranquil Fourth of July night amidst all the drudgery of working a menial, low-paying job. “Adventureland” feels personal, like it’s the movie that Mottola always wanted to make and finally could after the financial success of “Superbad.” Though the film ostensibly tracks James and Em’s burgeoning relationship from early flirtation to nasty breakup (after James discovers Em has been sleeping with Connell) to eventual reconciliation on the streets of New York, it’s telling that the moments in between stand out much more than the narrative itself.
Mottola rides a fine line in “Adventureland” when it comes to romanticizing youth; he doesn’t trade in half-baked nostalgia or mawkish sentimentality, but he also argues there’s an ineffable, poetic beauty to being young, bored, and intoxicated. Certain shots feel ripped from faded photographs out of someone’s forgotten scrapbook, like unremembered moments gaining resonance after years of distance: James and Em wrestling in Em’s swimming pool while Yo La Tengo’s quiet soundtrack pulses in the background; the early-morning lighting as James and Em look on to see Joel making out in a car; the achingly beautiful shot of James and Joel drinking beer on a grassy hill just before twilight while James’ ball-punching childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush) plays Vietnam with fireworks. There’s a lump-in-your-throat quality that Mottola naturally brings to these proceedings, an unspoken forethought that these kids are going to look back on this time and remember that it wasn’t so bad, even when it really was.
Though entire essays can be written about “Adventureland’s” depiction of suburban middle-class financial anxiety, or Mottola’s loving but pointed portrayal of the “sensitive virgin male,” there’s the crucial matter of the film’s pop soundtrack, which, without belaboring the point, is one of the very best of the decade. Opening with The Replacement’s “Bastards of Young” and ending with INXS’ rousing “Don’t Change,” “Adventureland’s” soundtrack scans like a personalized mixtape, throbbing with poignant songs about dissatisfied youth and heartbreak. Small moments are elevated to mood poems just by the right drop of the needle, such as when Em and James silently bond over taste when she turns up Husker Du’s “Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely” or when Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the park hottie, strolls back into the job to the tune of The Rolling Stones’ “Tops.” Though the film (rightfully) reveres Lou Reed, and James and Em’s favorite music clearly skews alternative, Mottola also fills the soundtrack with ’80’s hits, like The Outfield’s “Your Love” at the park or Poison’s “I Want Action” on Em’s TV, as a nice contrast to his protagonists’ “cool kid” credentials. Finally, even if Mottola didn’t infuse his film with great songs, Yo La Tengo’s aching original score would have been worth the price of admission.
“Adventureland” feels most essential because it captures adolescence’s ebb and flow while also demonstrating that disillusionment is the common thread which connects all the experiences, joyous and painful: The cool older guy who brags about his accomplishments is just a sad cautionary tale; the pot that brings brief popularity is always less valuable than sharing it with friends; the college buddy who claims to be a romantic may be a two-faced asshole; and so on, and so forth. But though Mottola fills the film with harsh lessons, he never exactly lingers on them, instead treating them as profoundly ordinary instead of anything bigger. “Look me in the eye/And tell me/That I’m satisfied,” screams Paul Westerberg over the soundtrack as James rides the bus to a new life in New York City, an idea that James has only recently become familiar with, but will continue with him far into the future. Yet, there’s an implicit understanding that the kids are gonna be alright, no matter how many times they make mistakes, break hearts, and get stuck in neutral. It’s this sharp sensitivity that makes such a small story feel larger than life.