The ‘80s remain the go-to decade for brilliant young adult movies, from the dark genius of Heathers through the rosters of the two Johns, Cusack and Hughes. The former charmed his way through the brattishly sweet The Sure Thing and yearned sincerity in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… while the latter ruled the cinema with a series of classics. The period’s daring fashions and diminishing innocence provided an unending pool to draw from for filmmakers at the time, but as a setting for films made any time afterwards has sadly been more miss than hit. More often than not directors now opt to use it as a source of ridicule, an exaggerated Flock Of Seagulls hairstyle here, a cringe inducing catchphrase there, to the point that it’s become rare these days to find a quality ‘80s set movie at all. Influences from the decade abound, but as a background to base a story in its somehow become a glaring obstacle for many.
Told over one summer in 1987, Adventureland breaks that pattern with a lethargic ease. The endlessly twitchy Jesse Eisenberg plays James, an unemployed college graduate forced into cheap labour when his parents suddenly decide against financially backing his educational future. Taking a job at the theme park of the film’s title, James quickly befriends his fellow employees and over the course of the 107 minute running time experiences the kind of coming of age drama and humiliation that has become a hallmark of teen comedies for years. Surrounded by an assortment of minimum wagers including Martin Starr’s brilliantly deadpan Joel and Ryan Reynold’s Lou Reed referencing Mike, James finds himself falling for Em, played with typical angst by Kristen Stewart. Simple stuff, but with its perfectly cast characters and sharp script the movie soon takes shape as a subtle yet funny teen drama. Scenes of awkwardness and good times are casually littered amongst a series of understatedly emotional character moments. Accidents are had, hearts are broken, and vomit is spilled, all in the most casual manner possible.
After the hilariously juvenile Superbad, Adventureland is a left turn for screenwriter/director Greg Mottola. A slow paced, semi-autobiographical comedy-drama that refuses to draw too much attention to itself, his third feature casts a loving eye on both its characters and its setting, treating the period with a warmth regularly missing in other similarly set movies. Mottola’s unabashed nostalgia is as honest as it is endearing, making you long for a decade people always seem to remember in an embarrassing light. His script sparkles with teen disillusionment and sarcasm while sprinkling brilliant one-liners amongst each cast member.
On the surface Eisenberg has played this type of character many times before – the bumbling, Woody Allen-esque intellectual has been his signature character since his debut in 2002’s Roger Dodger. Here he shows a broader range than before though, ably shifting from spoilt and pretentious to defenceless and vulnerable as the movie goes on. The occasionally irritating Reynolds shows he’s at his best when underplaying, Starr delivers the movie’s best lines in a brilliantly bitter manner, while Saturday Night Live stalwarts Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig steal their scenes as park owners Bobby and Paulette. And fresh from the unbearably anguished tones of the career igniting Twilight, Stewart seems a completely different actress. Likeable, troubled, and prone to the odd smile here and there, Stewart proves she’s more than just the tortured frowning and awkward pauses of Bella Swan. It’s a career highlight turn from the young actress.
It’s also soundtracked by some of the greatest bands of all time. Bookended by two classic songs by The Replacements and filled in between with the iconic sounds of The Cure, The Velvet Underground and Big Star, the tunes are so good it’s almost distracting. The script is scattered with musical references, from the pivotal role of Reed’s Satellite Of Love, to James and Em bonding over Hüsker Dü’s Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely. Occasionally Mottola’s desire to squeeze in a great track feels forced, but on the scenes where the music clicks Adventureland goes from being very good to great. As fireworks shoot overhead, James and Em grow closer in a key moment brought to life by Crowded House’s Don’t Dream It’s Over. The camera slowly zooms in as the two inch nearer to one another, a normally cheesy moment made impossibly moving by little more than some perfectly framed shots and Neil Finn’s expert way with a melody.
Woefully marketed upon its release, the film was destined to fail at the box office. The shadow of Superbad was cast over every second of the trailer, making the movie’s slow burn coming of age story a hard one to sit through for many viewers. Closer in tone to his debut feature, the 1996 indie drama The Daytrippers, Mottola has created a classic ‘80s movie, both in setting and tone. It has more in common with Say Anything… than anything else, from James’s Lloyd Dobler aping emotional rollercoaster to the final scene’s touching send-off. Both films will never sit amongst the upper echelons of any all-time best of lists and are too comfortably lethargic to dominate the box office. Their unashamedly lovelorn outlooks push them to the outskirts of cult territory too, leaving both movies in the strange position of being both easy to overlook yet utterly brilliant.
Where Cameron Crowe’s debut for the most part focused its story on the two main characters though, Mottola’s movie instead spreads itself over a well-rounded ensemble. It’s the kind of film you revisit year after year with a welcomed familiarity, readying yourself for upcoming dialogue and smiling at every heartwarming twist and turn. The kind that forces you to go out in search of songs from its soundtrack, either reminding long time indie rock fans of hidden gems or providing a gateway for new listeners to experience an underrated period of music. Above all else Adventureland is a movie to fall in love with. Which is the best compliment you could ever give.