Do you remember when you were a smart teenager and older children were like gods? You would follow them into the depths of hell as long as they take care of you. But what if these gods turn out to be losers who have led you the wrong way? First-time writer / director Jason Orley tackles this dangerous scenario with leisurely comic ease Big time adolescence. The title of this official Sundance selection from 2019 (from Friday in Hulu) is not necessarily an allusion to the 16-year-old protagonist Mo (Griffin Gluck), who is sure to have difficulty finding his way in the torrential waters of puberty and burgeoning maturity – It’s a reference to his best friend, Zeke (Pete Davidson), a 23-year-old flabby-faced burnout who is much more childish than his young compatriot.
Orley’s debut is both adorable and funny, but also a little scary – much like the youth themselves. Sure, being a teenager is romantic and not without dreams, but you are also trudging through uncharted territory and bypassing quicksand every step of the way. In this case, quicksand is a teenager’s insatiable need for role models. You could say Big time adolescence is like the indie comedy version of A Bronx story, although Pete Davidson’s character is far from a smooth mafia criminal.
So how does a clumsy high school kid like Mo become best friend of Zeke, a drug dealer who barely manages to work in a home appliance store? They meet years earlier when Zeke goes out with Mo’s older sister Kate (Emily Arlook) and Mo’s a 10-year-old minnow who desperately needs male leadership. Zeke reacts to Mos’ idolatrous look and quickly takes him under his wing. Kate quickly drops Zeke because of his unpredictable immaturity, but the two boys get stuck during their formative years. Now Mo is a 16-year-old introvert who has an insatiable crush on his classmate (Oona Laurence), has no friends in his school, and spends every weekend in Zeke’s house to happily waste watching him and his drugged 20-year-old friends become. We know that cannot be a good thing. Danger lurks on every corner. Mo is an impressive child and Zeke is anything but an ideal role model.
Orley’s gifts as a filmmaker become clear in these opening scenes when he establishes the connection between Zeke and Mo and simply invites us into Zeke’s house: a smoky, dilapidated cave full of ragged posters, bongs, empty beer cans and absurd “dude” banners. We become part of Zeke’s world and like all dangerous invitations it is not without charisma and special features. The best scenes in Big time adolescence Bring yourself back to the time when you worshiped your brother and friends and stomped your feet to make you stand out. Take the scene where Mo finally kisses his crush of teenagers. He then tells Zeke and his friends (one of whom is a dark, hysterical Kelly machine gun) that it was “tongue out”. Of course they immediately call him “Tongue Daddy” and make the nickname permanent with a tattoo on his hairless chest.
However, the fun cannot last forever. Zeke is an overgrown, self-defeating human child, and when his aimless world begins to crumble, he not only misleads Mo with terrible advice about growing up, but urges him to sell drugs to his classmates. At first Mo gets a lot of attention at school, but soon the bad advice and drug trafficking explode on his face, especially to the detriment of his worried, if loving, parents (Jon Cryer, Julia Murney). By the way, Cryer is great here. His astonished reactions to Zeke’s remarkable stupidity alone are worth the watch.
Big time adolescence does not go new ways. The film’s narrative is fairly familiar, especially if you’ve played through a lot of Sundance Coming-of-Age stories in the past 20 years. But who cares? Sometimes real storytelling is more consistent and interesting than the gentle struggle to be original. Orley is a confident filmmaker with a keen sense for nuances. Let’s hope he stays with people, not superheroes, because he’s great at analyzing their catastrophic complexities.
Saturday night live Actors Davidson and newcomer Griffin Gluck share a screen chemistry that is as contagious as it is touching. Without their binding, the film would have no weight. Davidson may be best known for his previous relationship with a pop star, but his performance in particular is deceptively complex. With his thin body, beetle eyes, sporadic energy and quick sarcasm, his zeke wears a powerful, self-righteous nihilism as if he were fighting the conventions of the world. Sure, it’s funny and charming, but it also disguises deep insecurity and fear. In those moments when Davidson releases his guard and stares at us with a persistent, dark, mystified look, we know that he is seriously floating. We met everyone like Zeke. They are the life of the party, childishly needy and tragically endearing. But in the end, her charm only goes so far. At some point either our heroes grow up from childhood or we have to.