With a notable exception or two – anyone remember Angus? – the teen movies of my youth were overcalculated, bloated pieces of shit, especially when compared to the John Hughes (and Hughes-influenced) classics of the 1980s. So it’s quite rewarding that we seem to be in a new golden age of teen movies, with films like Superbad and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist hitting a solid balance between wistful romanticism and down-to-earth realism.
Adventureland – the second feature from Superbad director Greg Mottola – could be considered part of the same trend. Except that it’s not about teenagers.
Surprised? So are a lot of people. I just Googled “Adventureland” and “teen” and got almost 600,000 hits. The film’s trailer doesn’t actually specify the age of its characters, and a lot of people are apparently just presuming that they’re high schoolers. Actually James, the movie’s protagonist, is graduating from college when the film opens and the object of his eye – the complicated but beautiful Em – is a student at NYU.
And although it takes place in the John Hughes era (ostensibly for its far superior soundtrack for post-teenage love affairs) Adventureland actually feels quite modern. Not only is it a smart, realistic-yet-romantic coming of age movie, it actually portrays post-adolescence as “the new adolescence” – and it’s about time.
Even in the 1980s, Hollywood’s obsession with setting magical, well-soundtracked moments against a high school background rang a bit hollow, a sure sign that most of the folks making these movies were 30- and 40-somethings and not high schoolers themselves (parents of high schoolers, for that matter). By that point, nobody was having big life epiphanies in high school. As a university education went from being a luxury option to the only option for the majority of students, the need to wrestle with existential choices got pushed over the graduation threshold and into the next realm. If university is the new high school, why not just take a rain cheque on all those questions and doubts and passions until the next, more uncertain life stage?
And yet, teen movies continued on in high school, relatively unchanged for 20 years. The actors and actresses looked too old playing too young. Everyone was too self-aware by half. And the hyberbolic drama always resulted in our heroes gaining some sense of what they wanted to do with their lives. In some ways, it may have been a bit cathartic to the teenagers sitting in the audience – they got to see what it would be like to live through these big moments and help them get ready to do so themselves in 5-7 years.
Adventureland, though, gets it right. Here are young 20-somethings who sure as hell didn’t have the answers in high school – they’re still struggling with the questions now. Jesse is hoping that a trip to Europe is going to help him “find himself” and ends up aimless when it falls through. Em is trying to deal with a dysfunctional, resentful relationship with her stepmom. They’re both living at home for the summer. And neither is confident with the role that sex plays in their life – Em deals with her emotional issues by having an affair with married-but-immature Connell (Ryan Reynolds’) and James isn’t having any at all. That’s right: In a genre where most films presume that people have sex in high school – and those that don’t get laid in college – Mottola makes his 22-year-old protagonist a virgin still struggling with the opposite sex (and, well, sex in general, obviously).
Given all this, it’s no wonder that so many people seem to mistakenly presume that Adventureland is a teen comedy – it’s just that it’s taken two decades for teen movies to catch up to the fact that 22 is the new 18.
And lest you think that the film is an outlier, this August sees the release of Post-Grad, starring the wonderful Alexis Bledel in what looks like an awful picture. But like Adventureland, the movie is about a college graduate forced to move back home, find a job and struggle with where her career, her love life and her future are headed – only with a lot more slapstick comedy.
Why does this matter? For realism’s sake, sure, but mostly it’s nice that there are movies out there that have eschewed the idea that young people need to have their lives sorted out in high school. Movies and television are always going to keep on showing romanticized versions of young love and anxiety, but placing them in the post-teenage years will hopefully reassure young people – both the young and young-at-heart – that they’re hardly outliers if they don’t have any life-affirming, magical moments by their 18th birthday.
And if it makes me feel better about my “what does it all mean?” anxieties as a semi-insecure 26 year old, well…all the better.