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Arrested development - ‘Big Time Adolescence’

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I’m on record as being a big proponent of coming of age stories. For whatever reason, I find tales of young people crossing the various Rubicons that come with growing up to be endlessly fascinating. There’s a universality to them; while the details may change, the fundamental underpinnings are simple and constant.

That said, while I personally enjoy them all, there’s no denying that, as with any genre, there are good ones and bad ones.

My guess was that “Big Time Adolescence,” the new film streaming on Hulu, would trend more toward the latter category. Instead, the feature debut from writer/directory Jason Foley surprised me. It’s a thoughtful and heartfelt meditation on the connections we make when we’re young and the people with whom we choose to make them … not to mention the relative wisdom (or lack thereof) inherent to those choices. While it doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it also manages to avoid the saccharine pitfalls that often undermine these kinds of stories.

Monroe “Mo” Harris (Griffin Gluck, TV’s “Locke & Key”) is 16 years old, a fairly typical high school student. He doesn’t have a ton of friends his own age; in fact, his best friend is an older guy named Zeke (Pete Davidson, “The Jesus Rolls”). Zeke and Mo have been pals for a few years, actually; they started hanging out after Zeke and Mo’s sister Kate (Emily Arlook, TV’s “Grown-ish”) broke up. While Mo’s parents Reuben (Jon Cryer, TV’s “Supergirl”) and Sherri (Julia Murney, “The Report”) aren’t thrilled with the friendship, Mo’s a pretty good kid who doesn’t get in much trouble, so they let it slide.

As Mo gets older, he starts to get pulled in different directions. He’s used to hanging out with Zeke and his crew – Zeke’s girlfriend Holly (Sydney Sweeney, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”), his boy Nick (rapper Machine Gun Kelly) and others – so he’s somewhat isolated from his peers. When a classmate asks him to use his connections to get booze for a party, Mo reluctantly agrees, only to meet up with a girl that he likes at said party. Sophie (Oona Laurence, “Lost Girls”) is acerbic and sarcastic and absolutely mesmerizing to Mo.

Things start to spiral when Zeke enlists Mo to start selling drugs at these parties, passing along massive markups to his peers. Initially, Mo enjoys feeling like a big-timer, but as the operation escalates – and people in authority start asking questions – he begins having doubts. Zeke, for his part, chooses to ignore the dangers (as well as the requests made by just about everyone in Mo’s likfe to be careful) and keep pushing.

Ultimately, Mo must decide whether to stay in Zeke’s eternally adolescent orbit … or to take the leap forward that his friend could never bring himself to make.

“Big Time Adolescence” isn’t what you’d call an innovative movie. It’s competently made, but there’s nothing particularly exciting about the look of the thing. And the narrative is solid enough, but the basic beats are familiar to anyone who has ever read/seen this kind of story. We’ve seen teenagers struggle to define themselves on their own terms a million times before. Of course, when you account for the fact that this is Foley’s first foray into the feature realm as either director or screenwriter, let alone both, there’s no denying that this is a fairly strong initial effort.

The movie’s biggest strength is its cast and the performances they put forth. Gluck is spot-on as the disaffected and bored Mo; he captures the energy of the sort of kid who would be swept up in the slacker charisma of a slightly older bulls—t artist. The temptation would be to go big, but Gluck gives Mo a reserved quality that works nicely. Cryer and Murney are solid as the parental figures; Cryer in particular has some good moments. Arlook and Laurence both find ways to shine in relatively limited roles. Zeke’s crew is largely peripheral, but they add some nice splashes of color (Sweeney’s sweetness stands out).

But really, it all boils down to what Pete Davidson brings to the table. No one is going to mistake Davidson for a great actor, though to be fair, we’ve only seen him play slight variations of himself thus far. As far as those variations go, however, Zeke is probably the best of the bunch. He’s shifty and shiftless, exuding a lack of give-a-s—t that perfectly encapsulates the sort of dropout deadender who would hang out with a high school kid several years his junior. He’s a meathead Mercutio, operating as the mentor figure that every parent fears. Honestly, it’s an enthralling performance even if it is just, you know … Pete Davidson.

Again – there’s not much new here. But that’s OK. The truth is that there will always be room for this kind of tale; stories about boys and girls becoming men and women will never lose their appeal, because they are among the few adventures that we all have undertaken. The specifics are different, but the basic path is the same for us all; this movie is a funny and heartfelt trip down that path.

“Big Time Adolescence” isn’t groundbreaking, but it doesn’t need to be. It is an eminently watchable film with a few laughs and a few tears – and anyone who has ever dealt with growing up will recognize at least some part of their own journey.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 22 March 2020 14:55


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