Adventureland

Director/Writer: Greg Mottola
Genre: Drama, Comedy, Coming of age
Sidney Kimmel Entertainment

I wish we had started this Netflix Hidden Gems feature earlier when summer had just started so I could have had an opportunity to discuss one of my favorite movies, Adventureland.

James Brennan has just graduated Oberlin College and is about to embark on a tour through Europe before his plans for a perfect summer fall apart. Not only can his parents no longer afford to send him on his Europe trip, they can’t afford to send him to graduate school. James is forced to take up a job at an amusement park called “Adventureland” with a variety of colorful characters. You’ve got the wacky owners, the semi-introverted love interest, the wise-cracking best friend, the suave rock star, and the girl over whom everyone fawns. Thankfully nobody is too far out where they lose a grounded sense of reality. It’s a familiar coming-of-age tale, but it’s one we don’t often see anymore; and if we do, it’s not handled with this sure-handed or endearing quality.

Greg Mottola (director of the also superb Superbad) drew from his own interactions working at an amusement park. To put a scene into context with the semi-autobiographical nature of the story: He mentioned in an interview with AV Club about people willing to pull knives in order to win better prizes (If you’ve seen the movie, you know which scene I’m talking about). See, Adventureland isn’t the best place to work. The corn dogs are old and deep fried, the patrons are abrasive, rides are in constant need of repair, the pay isn’t great; there’s really no reason anyone would want to work there. The film addresses this on a regular basis through other moments that have surely been taken from Mottola’s real life experiences.

The cast is filled with its own hidden gems. From Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the owners of Adventureland (They get the biggest laughs), to Ryan Reynolds as the park’s maintenance man, there is no shortage of acting capabilities. Honorable mention has to be given to Martin Starr as his character is the most bullshit free of the entire ensemble. But the two defining stars of the movie are Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as James Brennan, in that manic, socially awkward role he’s so well known for playing. It’s a familiar role for the actor but thanks to a tight script by Mottola, Eisenberg gets plenty of mileage out of his performance with his mousey personality being put to good use. Brennan is a likable guy but he’s just as prone to screw up like any of us. He’s also entirely unsure of himself which makes for some good comedy but even heavier drama. And boy, does this movie have its share of drama. But none of it is melodrama. It’s all systematically built upon from the opening to the closing credits.

The Twilight Saga is a bastardization of that time of day and the word “saga” and Kristen Stewart is just not good in it. She’s barely passable in Snow White and the Hunstman. But damn it all if she isn’t good when the material calls for it. There’s a compassion from Stewart’s character, Em, that is hidden underneath her rougher exterior. As the film progresses, we begin to understand why she has a certain attitude about life, leading to a pretty emotional climax.

Even during the opening of the movie, there’s a sense of history to the characters. The characters aren’t perfect but they have a pretty solid stance on some of the moral implications that unfortunately permeate our societal norms; specifically, sexism. I can’t get too much into it without detailing some of the plot but keep an eye out for a discussion on the topic of a “homewrecker.” Nobody is innocent by any stretch of the imagination, but where both people should be at fault, only one is blamed in the aftermath. It’s that unflinching look at these harsh situations that helps Adventureland rise above the standard coming-of-age tale.

Employees of Adventureland aren’t infallible. They’re trapped within the tightening confines of reality and an ever-growing presence of adulthood. Will these characters ever find their place alongside other great young adult characters like Ferris Bueller? Probably not. But they deserve to be. Why? Their mistakes don’t break them. They persevere. They make the little moments count. A barrage of poor decision making knock them on their asses and make them question what’s really important. Every moment counts but which ones define who we are is entirely up to us. I feel lucky enough to have seen them and I hope you will too.