Adventureland (15)

Innocent victims
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Greg Mottola's Adventureland is a film for anyone who has ever been young, had their heart broken, done a rotten holiday job, or flipped over a pop song.

Does that cover everyone? It is a coming-of-age picture which seems not so different from any other but hits delightfully odd notes thanks to Mottola's terrifically smart script and a cast of mostly eager young actors.

Jesse Eisenberg (from The Squid and the Whale) plays James, a voluble, insecure college grad whose plans for a cultural summer in Europe go belly-up when his family suffers an economic setback. Forced on to the job market (this is the late 1980s, when there were jobs), James ends up working at a grotty Pittsburgh amusement park called Adventureland. He's soon versed in chiselling the customers at his game booth, where no one (the management insists) is allowed to win the giant-ass stuffed panda. Customers insult and occasionally threaten him, the Tannoy blares out "Rock Me, Amadeus" on a loop, and James just has to grin and bear it.

Most of the male employees lust after the park's babe, Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), but James is beguiled by Em (Kristen Stewart), a watchful, wryly funny girl who in turn responds to his innocence (he's still a virgin) and his endearing sense of honesty. They really get on, these two, but Em is secretly involved with a married guy and can't bring herself to break it to her younger admirer.

Around this central pairing orbits a fantastic support cast: Joel (Martin Starr) is James's closest friend, a philosophical pessimist who thinks he's too ugly and poor to get a girl; Frigo (Matt Bush) is another pal who always greets James with a rabbit punch to the nuts; Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig make a superbly eccentric double-act as the park owners; and Ryan Reynolds plays the fix-it man Connell (Ryan Reynolds) whose past as a rock might-have-been (he supposedly jammed with Lou Reed) dazzles James for a while.

Mottola, who once made a great little comedy called The Daytrippers and a more raucous recent one in Superbad, thumbs through his own back pages here, and the depth of feeling he invests is palpable. He never oversells the Eighties as an era – a quick glimpse of Reagan on TV or a Neil Young 1984-85 tour T-shirt – and selects a soundtrack that perfectly mixes the good (Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Lou Reed), the naff (Judas Priest, Falco) and the guilty pleasure (I loved hearing Wang Chung's "Dance Hall Days" again). There's even a glorious imitation of a Rush drum solo. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that Mottola hand-picked every song.

Between trips to the local disco and smoking skinny joints in the moonlight, James and Em conjure that tender, fleeting sensation when two people realise they're in love for the first time. Mottola has written them beautifully, but it's Eisenberg's raw-boned awkwardness and Stewart's banked-down sense of hurt that bring them alive.

There is one baffling moment when one Adventureland employee splits up from another because she's Catholic and he's Jewish; I didn't know Pittsburgh was riven by sectarian tensions, and certainly not as late as the 1980s. But one takes it on trust from Mottola, because he gets everything else bang-on. This fond remembrance of his own dancehall days is "modest" in the best way. It understands the folly of youth but forgives it, too, reminding us of how wonderful it is to live so intensely. So allow me a juvenile formulation of my own: I couldn't love anyone who didn't love this movie.