DVD Release Date:  August 25, 2009
Theatrical Release Date:  April 3, 2009
Rating:  R (for strong language, drug use, sexual references and sexual situations.)
Genre:  Comedy, Drama
Run Time:  107 min.
Director:  Greg Mottola
Cast:  Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Martin Starr, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Margarita Levieva, Matt Bush, Ryan Reynolds

I have to confess:  Adventureland captured me as strongly as any film I've seen in a long time.  Disparage its R-rated content if you must (and I wouldn't disparage anyone in return who would), but there is an authentic core to this nostalgic story that can't be denied. 

We were all young once, and often our immaturity, passions and inexperience got the best of our potential, but it was real, deeply formative, and there was a beauty to it all—even in the mistakes.  It was a time that, for good and bad, made us who we are.  Adventureland is about that time, and succeeds at remembering (and understanding) it as well as any coming-of-age story ever has.

Set in 1987, Adventureland recreates its time perfectly while also basking in an aura of timelessness.  If you're a child of the '80s, this movie transports your heart back to that era.  If you're younger or older than that generation, it still resonates.  That's because this isn't a movie about what it was like to grow up in the '80s but, simply, what it's like to grow up—with all its fun, confusion, expectancy, and loss.

Though conventional in both set-up and arc, this story and the emotions it explores are profoundly universal, and its themes circle specifically around the repercussions of absent fathers (whether physically or emotionally).  Recent college-grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) has his plans of a summer excursion to Europe and post-graduate Columbia journalism school studies completely upended when his well-to-do dad is demoted and money dries up.  Entitled no more, Jesse has to find a summer job.  The best he can get?  Being a carny.

Called "Adventureland," Jesse's place of employment is the classic local summer fairground so common to many suburban communities, where amidst all the blinking lights and unhealthy food are cheap rides and lame games, with even cheaper and lamer prizes.  Given his educated pedigree and erudite tastes (he reads poetry for pleasure), Jesse is initially a fish out of water in this lower-class environment, but that quickly equalizes as he meets old friends, makes new ones, and falls hard for a sweet-yet-hardened girl named Em (Twilight's Kristen Stewart).  It's the perfect milieu from which the quintessential "One Summer That Changed Everything" emerges.

Writer/director Greg Mottola (Superbad, TV's Arrested Development) makes this so much more than a light comedic time capsule.  Though surrounded by many teen-genre staples, the central characters are real, their behavior complex, and consequences carry weight.  Sure, Mottola does flirt with some wish fulfillment for Jesse (his surrogate nerdy lead), but he never crosses over into incredulity.  Furthermore, he keeps everything grounded in the honest dynamics of young adults.  At that age, when bad things happen and people do you wrong, you're more prone to make the wrong decision than the right one, and you only make matters worse.  That's what happens here.  Lessons are hard-earned and regrets are made.

Then there's the deeper thematic undercurrent of failed male role models and how young men and women are damaged from the absence of a strong male figure.  We see this not only in the milquetoast, hen-pecked fathers, but perhaps best exemplified in the park's mechanic (and resident stud) played by Ryan Reynolds.  He's that slightly older man every teenage guy wants to be:  handsome, cool, and knows everything about women.  His character begins as the idealized archetype, but then the film slowly deconstructs that archetype—even exposing it—ultimately revealing that this is the last person to be admired or emulated (but credit Reynolds for imbuing this flawed man with humanity).

Though never explicitly stated, Mottola's incisive screenplay and direction makes the case for the necessity of good male figures by depicting what results from their absence.  Young men amble aimlessly—confused and disillusioned—while young women look for affection and affirmation in the wrong people, in the wrong ways, even being wary of those who are innocent and trustworthy.   

Not that Adventureland is all philosophical meditation.  On the contrary, it's also hilarious.  This is, after all, from the director of Superbad, although it would be fair to describe this as its mirror reflection.  Where Superbad went for laughs and had a little heart, Adventureland is just the opposite—a story of heart textured by humor that elicits laughs as much for its realism (you're laughing because you've been there) as its inspired audacity (one guy's trademark of sucker punching other guys where it hurts most comes to mind, as does SNL's brilliant Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the fairground managers).  Sure, its level of Rated-R content is similar to Superbad, but not as raunchy (while candid in conversation and situations, the film stops short of becoming visually explicit).

By the end, Adventureland works on you in a way the best coming-of-age stories do (The Wonder Years, Stand by Me, Freaks & Geeks, et al).  You laugh, you're moved, you really identify, and it concludes with a perfect mixture of truth and hope.  Things will end the way they do, the way they must, and not always the way you want them to.  Once things are set in motion, they will lead to their natural (and even heartbreaking) ends.  That, as they say, is life.  But when the page turns and you begin again, well, the choice is once more up to you.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Drinking, smoking, pot smoking, both individually and in party environments (consisting of high school and college-age people). 
  • Language/Profanity:  The full range of profanities, used commonly but not constantly, including occasional sexual references.
  • Sex/Nudity:  A few sexual situations (teens making out on a couch, in a car, at parties), including brief moments of fondling, but there is no nudity and scenes end before intercourse is depicted or portrayed.  A young guy strips down to his underwear to swim in a pool (with a girl who's clothed).
  • Violence/Other:  A few situational scuffles, but no graphic violence.  Vomiting occurs. 

 
Jeffrey Huston is a film director, writer and producer at Steelehouse Productions in Tulsa, Okla.  He is also cohost of "Steelehouse Podcast," along with Steelehouse Executive Creative Mark Steele, where each week they discuss God in pop culture. 

To listen to the weekly podcast, please visit www.steelehouse.com or click here.  You can also subscribe to "Steelehouse Podcast" through iTunes.