Review: Big Time Adolescence

“I know this seems bad,” Mo explains, as the police officer leads him out of his high school classroom. “But it’s not entirely my fault.” It’s important to set the proper tone, and establish the dominant themes, early on in your motion picture, and Jason Orley’s Big Time Adolescence certainly does that; in this introductory scene, Orley gives us the easy laugh, but also indicates that this is a story about the complexity of motivations, about the heavy influences of those around us (especially as a teen). And it lets us know that this is a story where there are consequences for bad behavior, which isn’t always the case in movies like these.

But before any of that, Orley flashes back to six years earlier, when Mo (Griffin Gluck) was just a ten-year-old, the oft-babysat third wheel of his teenage sister Kate (Emily Arlook) and her boyfriend Zeke (Pete Davidson). Mo sees Zeke as the big brother he never had, who takes him on roller coasters and into R-rated movies, so when Kate and Zeke break up, Mo still wants to hang out with Zeke. The older boy keeps him around, through the years, as a kind of a mascot; Mo keeps hanging around because Zeke and his dirtbag friends offer a sense of belonging that he doesn’t get from his peers. Also, they let him drink and smoke and stuff.   

The most striking element of Orley’s wise screenplay is how thoroughly he’s worked through this central relationship – the multiple layers of admiration, dependency, and affirmation that it offers, to both of these young men. There’s no question that it’s a real friendship, that they feel honest affection for each other, but there’s also an element of self-promotion; Mo hangs out with Zeke because he thinks Zeke is cool, and Zeke lets him because, as a 23-year-old jobless burnout, he needs to be around someone who thinks he’s cool. But as the picture progresses, Zeke starts to get an idea of the kind of person he could end up being. And since Mo wants to be like Zeke, he begins seeing it too.

Not that such futuristic concerns are top of mind; one of Big Time Adolescence’s best qualities is how acutely it captures the “tomorrow doesn’t matter, let’s do this” nature of the teenage years (most succinctly, perhaps, in the moment when Mo explains to the girl he likes, as he prepares to jump out of a window with a duffel bag full of drugs, “This isn’t me, I swear!”) Yet unlike most teen party comedies, the picture is willing to wrestle with the gravity and consequences of those reckless decisions – yet somehow dodging the trapdoor of addressing them in a preachy, After School Special kind of way. These years are messy and difficult, and even the best teen movies can rarely resist tying thing up with pretty little bows.

Orley occasionally succumbs to that temptation as well; there’s some business with a recent ex that feels more than a little contrived, and one wishes he’d given more dimension to more than a single adult character. But that character, Mo’s dad, is played with a proper mix of helplessness and barely-contained rage by Jon Cryer, very good as a man who’s working so hard at doing and saying the right things, and mostly failing.

Big Time Adolescence arrives on the very weekend that Pete Davidson’s first studio vehicle, Judd Apatow’s King of Staten Island, was set to debut at SXSW. It would’ve been quite the coming-out party, but as it is, this Hulu release makes a fine case for Davidson as a film star – he’s very funny, sure, but he also puts across the character’s contradictions, flipping and mixing Zeke’s brio and insecurity. And Glick, though mostly playing the straight man, is a sturdy anchor.

Orley is a funny but tricky writer, and in scene after scene, his ear for dialogue is just right – it’s natural but heightened, funny without sounding too “written.” That’s a balance that some screenwriters spend entire careers trying to achieve; this is Orley’s debut feature. I expect we’ll hear plenty more from him in the years to come.

B+

“Big Time Adolescence” is now in select theaters and streaming on Hulu.

Jason Bailey is a film critic and historian, and the author of five books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Playlist, Vanity Fair, Vulture, Rolling Stone, Slate, and more. He is the co-host of the podcast "A Very Good Year."

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