Set in the sleepy suburbs of Pittsburgh during the latter years of the Reagan era, Adventureland stars The Squid and the Whale’s Jesse Eisenberg as James Brennan, a well-intentioned, funny young man who has just graduated with a degree in English literature - with a focus on the ever valuable Renaissance period - who finds his planned summer in Europe cancelled due to his families economic struggles. Desperate for money to pay his way into New York’s Columbia University journalism Masters program, James, after discovering the uselessness of an English BA (I felt like weeping during these scenes), finds himself with a dead-end job as a games supervisor at the city’s ramshackle, “Rock Me Amadeus”-rotating, amusement park Adventureland. Temporarily friendless, working for peanuts and still packing a V-Card, James glumly prepares himself for a summer of toil and tedium.
Fortunately however, Adventureland staffs an eccentric crew of wage-slaves so memorable that boredom isn’t really an option. There are Bobby and Paulette, the owners of the joint, a deceptively insane married couple played by SNL pros Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, as well as their ruggedly handsome ride mechanic Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a moonlighting musician who once legendarily jammed with Lou Reed! Also present are the workplace sexpot Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), the uber-smart, cynical nerd Joel (Martin Starr) and the... Oh, hold on, who’s that cute, edgy girl behind that game counter over there? James sure wants to know too. Her name is Em (Twilight star Kristen Stewart) and she’s a wounded beauty who guarantees to make James’ life a whole lot more interesting. Over the course of these simmering, dreamy days of summer ’87, Motolla unfolds the day-to-day dramas of these character’s lives as we look on with an infectious mix of joy, hope, sadness and a heavy helping of youthful exuberance.
What makes Adventureland a revelatory experience, unlike similarly themed romantic-dramedies aimed at early twenty-somethings (Nick and Norah anyone? Yeah, me neither!), is its unswerving commitment to capturing the human truth within each and every character. Em may be cool, funny and adorable, and an ideal potential lover, but she’s also carrying the weight of the world on her lithe shoulders and not immune to poor judgment. Similarly, Reynold’s Mike is a smooth-talking ladies man, cheating on his wife, who talks big but, at the end of the day, innately realizes that his future prospects are slim to none. A lesser film would have made him the pathetic butt of a joke, but as played by the actor and written by Motolla, he’s a fragile human being just trying to remind himself of a time when the future glowed with promise. Heck, even bubbly Lisa P., goofy Bobby, meek Paulette and cynical Joel are interesting individuals with real emotions and genuine struggles to overcome.
It’s the love story between James and Em, though, which makes Adventureland sing. Not since David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels have I witnessed a youthful romance so honest, unconventional and rewarding as the one depicted affectionately here. Motolla remembers that young love is, at the best and worst of times, an exhilarating, frightening, confusing adventure which is as valuable for the passion shared as the accompanying personal revelations and growth. James and Em may not be destined to wind up in wedded bliss, but their time together will forever change and strengthen them for the better. That both young actors communicate this chaotic ride so beautifully is a testament to the maturity and quiet intelligence of their performances.
Leaving the film, it was impossible for me not to think of the Em of my own past, and reflect on how that relationship ultimately laid the groundwork for the course I’ve travelled on since. While I truly hope for a brighter future for Adventureland’s two young protagonists, I feel honoured to have been able to follow them and rejoice in their emotional explorations. This is a movie you want to hug and treasure, a tender reminder of time gone by and of those warm summer evenings when the mysteries of the cosmos could be unlocked by a bright smile or an adoring gaze.
4.5 out of 5
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