The coming-of-age comedy is well-worn territory, particularly within American indie cinema, so it would seem that Adventureland, the latest film from Superbad writer and director Greg Mottola, could have little new to offer. Overly smart but slightly geeky virgin protagonist? Check. Extremely geeky best friend who gets all the best lines? Check. Beautiful but troubled love interest? Check. Stiffler-esque former friend who has a habit of punching people in the nether regions as a joke? Set in the 80s? Check and check.
So far, so predictable, but Mottola is a far better writer than the basic elements of the story would suggest. Our hero, James (Jesse Eisenberg), misses out on the graduation trip of a lifetime due to family financial worries and is forced to get a job running sideshow games at a down-at-heel local amusement park to save money for college. There he meets fellow “games people”, acerbic nerd Joel (Martin Starr) and laconic, lovely and Lou Reed-obsessed Em (Kirsten Stewart). The potential for another stereotyped teen comedy is obvious, but despite the occasional foray into gross-out humour, Mottola has crafted something much deeper and more interesting than that.
Eisenberg fills out his character admirably, and his light comic touch and appealing performance prove that lookalike up-and-comer Michael Cera has some competition in the deadpan, offbeat hero stakes. Stewart is surprisingly charming when unburdened by the overwrought drama of Twilight (in which she plays lead character Bella). Her deft and understated handling of a complex role is particularly impressive given that she was 17 when Adventureland was made, although as a child actor she’s had plenty of experience in the movie-making game. Starr, in particular, stands out as capable of so much more than the reflexive stupidity of his previous appearance on Freaks and Geeks, giving a rounded and intelligent performance as eternal loser Joel.
Despite the relatively familiar storyline, Adventureland has much to recommend it. With a likeable young cast, a dryly-witty script and a soundtrack by hipster favourites Yo La Tengo, this is a generous but not indulgent slice of life that leaves the viewer satisfied and uplifted. And wishing they were a “games person” too.