In 1987, I would have turned twelve before its summer and beginning adolescence. Adolescence is sometimes painful and wonderful transitional period, and so is early adulthood, especially the early twenties. Greg Mottola, director of Adventureland (2009), would have been in his early twenties in 1987, the same as the characters in his film. Now, as a grown man, Mottola's made a film from a more experienced view, taking a look backwards with a very observant eye for detail of early adulthood. Indeed, I don't think I would have been affected by Adventureland nearly as much as when I was twenty-four as I have found it today at thirty-four. Not only is Adventureland a detailed and rich portrait of its twenty-something characters, it's easily one of the best films of 2009.
James Brennan is graduating college with a recently-broken heart from an eleven-day relationship but with high hopes that his summer trip to Europe will be eventful and also the exciting times at Columbia University graduate school in the fall. Back in Pittsburgh, his hometown, his parents have some sad news: Brennan's father has been demoted, and the family is making considerably less money. No trip to Europe and any plans of moving to NYC in the fall will mean that Brennan has to do the unthinkable: get a summer job. Overqualified for just about every job for which he applies or under qualified for having no job experience, per se, Brennan bites the bullet and takes a job with old buddy Frigo at the local amusement park, Adventureland.
Adventureland is run by quirky couple, Bobby and Paulette. Brennan meets almost his doppelganger in Joel who shows him the ropes of the "Games" booths. Brennan puts on a show at the horserace game and away in a captive audience is Em. Good-looking musician, Connell, moonlights as the maintenance guy. Then, there's also Lisa P.
At its heart, Adventureland is a love story between Brennan and Em. Both are attracted to each other at first glance. Brennan's attracted to her beauty and her seeming self-confidence. Em's attracted to Brennan's cute and goofy antics and his ridiculously sweet way of stepping on his feet as he talks. At a party at Em's house, ("I'm invited?" asks Brennan. "Yeah," says Em. "That's why I told you.") Em makes a playful play for Brennan in the pool. Brennan, as he is want to do, opts really for talking. Brennan is amazingly candid with his feelings when he speaks to Em, and she's initially taken aback, especially when she learns he's really a romantic and a virgin. Em finds his openness attractive and she's later able to come from behind her seeming shield of confidence and open up to him. There's a real genuineness to the performances, the scenes with these two characters, the development of their relationship, and the little touches, here and there, that's very attractive in Adventureland. The intimacy within the scenes with these two characters never feels forced or trite, and their relationship flows at a leisurely pace. The backdrop of long summer days and nights is a perfect setting for such a love story, and it's quite moving.
Mottola's most interesting thematic touch is the relationship of the parents to their children. Seemingly collateral, it gives the most insight into the characters' makeup, beyond their own words and actions. Em's recently lost her mother to cancer; and while her mother was dying, her father met another woman, who he has now married and she doesn't really care for Em. Connell's mother is a little needy and dramatic, ever since his father split from her. Connell doesn't even know where he went. Lisa P.'s old man lays up at the house injured and is unable to work. She doesn't mention having a mother, so her working at Adventureland seems the only financial help her father is getting. Brennan's mom is the proverbial glue holding her family together: Brennan's father is secretly drinking, while Brennan's watching his future dreams fold, one by one. Kudos to Mottola: it's a masterful touch to his screenplay: it's an extra small step to give his already rich film some depth, and it just goes to show how detailed and well-crafted Adventureland really is.
As for detail, I can speak from experience that in 1987, just about everyone got sick of "Rock Me Amadeus" after the first couple of times hearing it. When Brennan asks Joel do they have to play it twenty times a day? Virtually everyone, including the viewer, is in agreement that it's torturous. The music of the period is perfect in Adventureland, as it's filled with nostalgic tunes, not necessarily of the period's biggest artists. It's the only music played in Adventureland, whether it's on the speaker at the theme park or in Em's car from Brennan's mix tape that he made for her. Mottola's film is shot in contemporary style: natural lighting, arbitrary or contrived compositions, and realistic costumes and make-up. No one personifies the eighties better in Adventureland than Lisa P., from her wardrobe, to her make-up, to her dance moves. A gorgeous film to look at as it is engrossing to watch.
Adventureland is not a completely romantic film nor is it really representative of early adulthood. Absent are some of the very real issues affecting twenty-somethings, such as those who had children and had to grow up really fast. They didn't have a period to find themselves spiritually. Absent also are the ones who struggled with addiction, sexual abuse, and real poverty. Adventureland is a personal and intimate film about love and the awkwardness of early adulthood which will certainly affect everyone on some level. Perhaps, I'm just getting softer with old age, with real life fairly intense most of the time, and I can watch Adventureland and think back that my early twenties was a really magical period, not one that I wish to revisit necessarily, but glad that I experienced what I did and with whom I was with. Adventureland captures that spirit perfectly. See it.