We all have at least one, a summer when everything changes, when we first start to become the person we truly are. Every writer tries at least once to tell the story of one of these summers and the best of them connect us to our own stories as we laugh and cry along with them.
Director Greg Mottola’s last film was the box office smash “Superbad,” and like that, this is the story of young people at a turning point, told with sex, drugs, rock and roll and with some surprising sweetness. The mix is much more on the sweetness side in this frankly autobiographical film; don;t let the ad campaign mislead you that this is another wild and raunchy story.
For one thing, this movie’s lead is four years further along. James Brennan (“The Squid and the Whale’s Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college and things are not going the way he planned. His parents have had some financial reversals. Not only is his planned trip to Europe with his friends canceled so he can stay home and get a job but there’s no money to pay his tuition at graduate school, and his parents seem disturbingly callous about how this affects him. He finds to his distress that an undergraduate degree in literature does not qualify him for pretty much anything, so he ends up getting a job for which no qualifications of any kind are necessary — working at a decrepit amusement park called Adventureland.
We know what to expect, of course. In just about every summer job, summer camp, and summer trip movie ever made there will be a girl of great sensitivity and insight and a girl of great hotness. There will be a bully or menace of some kind and a boss who is clueless or evil or both. But the humiliating lessons are more in the painful twinge than wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-20-years-later-in-a-cold-sweat category. The bosses (SNL’s very funny Bil Heder and Kristin Wiig) are not evil and not really clueless. They just have the requisite benign obtuseness that enables them to continue to run a business that (1) relies on children in unleashed frenzy mode as customers and (2) relies on teenagers in major hormonal crisis mode as staff. Mottola manages to avoid the cliches and create characters with warmth and specificity and — that rarest quality in movies of this genre — some grace.