'Big Time Adolescence': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A bittersweet look at taking one's idols off their pedestals.

Writer-director Jason Orley's comedy stars Pete Davidson as a man-child whose best friend is a 16-year-old.

Which is more pathetic: Dazed and Confused's Wooderson, who hangs out with high schoolers years after graduation — meeting a new crop of friends (and freshman girls) every year — or a 23-year-old whose best friend is the 16-year-old who started looking up to him at 10 and never wised up?

Sympathetic to both the arrested-development loser and his about-to-be-disillusioned sidekick, Jason Orley's Big Time Adolescence has the dank smell of first-hand experience. As the older half of this odd couple, Pete Davidson is so on-target you might forget all the lines he's flubbed on Saturday Night Live. While it's not necessarily proof he's ready to carry pictures by himself, this outing will be well received by fans and is strong enough to earn attention for writer-director Orley, whose script made the Black List in 2014.

We meet Monroe (or Mo, played by Griffin Gluck) in a flash-forward, as he is pulled out of his high-school classroom by a principal and a police officer. We have no idea why, but after jumping back six years, we can guess who's largely responsible: As an impressionable kid, Mo bonded with his older sister's boyfriend Zeke (Davidson); though the sister realized he was sketchy and dumped him, Mo never stopped tagging along. Years later, he has no friends his own age, and spends his afternoons drinking beer at Zeke's house with whatever twenty-something slackers are there.

We don't learn much about Mo except that he's a nice kid, who says no when the other guys offer him a smoke, and that he has eyes for Sophie (Oona Laurence) but can't tell if she likes him back. Zeke tells Mo he should give her lots of attention, then become hard to reach when she starts to open up to him. Zeke's girlfriend Holly (Sydney Sweeney) says that's bad advice, but Holly's with him, so it must work. Still, manipulation doesn't come naturally to Mo, and he fares pretty well by being himself around Sophie.

He's soon pushed into another persona, though. When Mo's invited to a senior's house party on the condition that he bring booze, Zeke asks him to take along some of his surplus weed as well, to sell to the kids for inflated prices. Soon Mo's a fixture at all the parties, getting more than weed for the new friends who never noticed him at school. The reader may see where this is going.

Gluck is a babe in the woods as Mo, easygoing enough to convincingly hang with his stoned elders but willing to hand off most of the spotlight to co-stars. Orley pokes fun in tiny ways at some of the milestones we see in Mo's life — especially the time he gets trapped in a car as two guys turn it into a hotbox, then comes home high to find a family reunion in progress — but in general the film is more tender than comic, protective of each shred of Mo's innocence he still has to lose.

Throughout, the familial chorus of "stop hanging out with that loser" is strongest from Mo's father Reuben (Jon Cryer), who knows it's unwise to try to prevent their socializing, but is worried and hurt every time Mo skips father/son time to go do who knows what. (Cryer is sympathetic as Reuben watches this aging goofball be Mo's source of paternal advice; what can he do, if he's unwilling to go against his nature and turn into a disciplinarian?)

Character development isn't the film's strong suit, except when it comes to Zeke, where the combination of performance and action tells us more than all the dumb advice he gives Mo. A character many of us have known in our own lives, Zeke doesn't realize how much he needs the admiration of others, and tries to ride his natural charisma further than it can carry him. Behind the scenes, Davidson is smart enough not to do the same thing: Where he has often seemed to think puppy-dog charm was all he needed on SNL, here he is disciplined, showing fine comic timing and yielding the screen when it serves the movie.

Somewhere deep down, Zeke knows that if Mo gets something going for himself, he won't be around for long. He'd never intentionally get the kid in trouble or thwart his growth. But then, he does a lot of stuff unintentionally.

Production company: Lidell Entertainment
Cast: Pete Davidson, Griffin Gluck, Emily Arlook, Colson Baker, Thomas Barbusca, Oona Laurence, Esteban Benito, Julia Murney, Sydney Sweeney, Jon Cryer
Director-screenwriter: Jason Orley
Producers: Mason Novick, Glen Trotiner, Will Phelps, Mickey Liddell, Pete Shilaimon, Jeremy Garelick
Executive producers: Michael Glassman, Michelle Knudsen, Pete Davidson, Ryan Bennett
Director of photography: Andrew Huebscher
Production designer: Kathrin Eder
Costume designer: Samantha Hawkins
Editor: Waldemar Centeno
Composers: Zachary Dawes, Nick Sena
Casting director: Amey Rene
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: UTA

90 minutes