Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Hulu releases the film on Friday, March 13.
Much about Pete Davidson’s unique appeal, as “SNL” comedian and celebrity, has to do with his smirk: a slender half-moon with naughty connotations and an undercurrent of sadness. “Big Time Adolescence” provides the first indication of how that smile can tell a story. As the 22-year-old Zeke, the listless college dropout who becomes the rambunctious older-brother figure to 16-year-old Mo (Griffin Gluck), Davidson projects an outward confidence even as the movie makes it clear that his character is full of it. The strength of “Big Time Adolescence” stems from Mo waking up to the real intentions behind that smile.
As coming-of-age stories about wayward teens go, writer-director Jason Orley’s debut is a sturdy, endearing portrait of youth in revolt that takes few surprising turns. But the two actors sell their dynamic well enough to inject the story with palpable authenticity despite the familiar premise. As Mo’s handy opening voiceover explains, he first got to know Zeke as the cool boyfriend to Mo’s older sister; when that relationship fell apart, Mo swooped in, drawn to Zeke and his fellow partying twentysomething pals more than the comparatively drab possibilities of high school social life.
There’s no doubt that Zeke’s hedonistic lifestyle represents a threat to Mo’s future, but that sense of danger is exactly what draws Mo in. Orley’s best sequence comes in the credits, with a slo-mo depiction of the duo drinking beers with an adult crowd after dark, establishing the euphoric escape Mo finds in Zeke’s carefree life. The rest of the movie revolves around whether Mo will wake up to the danger Zeke poses to Mo’s own future.
Orley’s script lingers on Zeke’s gleeful vulgarity and cocksure attitude, as well as Mo’s willingness to take it at face value. “You gotta jerk off before you fuck a girl,” Zeke advises the teen, driving down a suburban road while letting Mo hold the wheel. That might sound innocuous enough, but it’s only a matter of time before Zeke begins to impact Mo in more perilous fashion, handing him weed and other drugs to sell at underage parties under the guise that it will make the pariah more popular.
For a while, it seems to work, as Mo’s sudden burst of confidence allows him to lure classmate Sophie (Oona Laurence) into a charming date night, which culminates with a late-night drinking session at Zeke’s home. Mo falls into a long line of horny white kids pursuing first love and geeking out over his first kiss, but “Big Time Adolescence” spikes that formula with Zeke’s smarmy commentary and destructive behavior. When Mo tries to tell Zeke and his friends about the encounter, they don’t just haze the poor kid — they give him a tattoo.
Needless to say, these circumstances lead Mo’s dad (Jon Cryer, in a sensitive turn) to confront Zeke on multiple equations, as the older man attempts to determine whether the wild-eyed reprobate is a role model or simply a glorified babysitter. His logical concerns strike Mo as overblown, but it’s only a matter of time before their antics lead to bigger trouble: After a car crash leads police officers to investigate the high school’s drug-dealing problem, Mo becomes an object of interest and his allegiance to Zeke becomes an open question.
“Big Time Adolescence” heads toward a series of complications in a straightforward manner, as if playing “Superbad” Madlibs. It comes as no great surprise when Mo angers family and friends alike, while growing more skeptical of Zeke right on schedule. Once it established its ensemble, the movie hits a series of familiar beats. And while it’s fun to watch Zeke hang out with his boisterous crowd of likeminded partiers — including an amusing but underutilized Colson Baker (aka Machine Gun Kelly) — the movie ultimately feels too formulaic and safe to match the wild energy they bring to the room.
Ultimately, “Big Time Adolescence” works best as a two-hander between a young man who pretends to have wisdom to share, and his disciple’s eagerness to soak it all in. Gluck, best known at this point for “American Vandal,” shows real potential for playing stone-faced introverts keen on finding an outlet for their latent desires — but the movie’s less fixated on his struggle than the way it reflects back on Zeke’s self-destructive nature. Davidson’s first major movie performance doesn’t give him a big moment, but it’s littered with many engaging smaller ones rich with implications about his aimless trajectory.
Orley’s sharp visual style draws a telling contrast to Zeke’s sloppy way in the world. Visiting a museum, the pair gaze at an abstract painting that Zeke writes off as “scribbles and dicks,” before concluding, “There’s more to life than scribbles and dicks.” That sort of inane observation — both crass and genuine in its quest for meaning — epitomizes the essence of a sturdy dramedy that makes up for its lack of depth in scrappy charm, and a willingness to admit that sometimes the best characters are ones destined to screw everything up.
“Big Time Adolescence” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.