Of all the genres, coming-of-age is the one that feels the most nostalgic and easy for me to latch onto. After all the heavy and generally supremely dark subject matter I exposed myself to in the first six films I saw at Sundance, it felt right to end my festival experience with something a little lighter in tone. Cut to the world premiere screening of Big Time Adolescence, the final film I saw at the film festival. And thankfully, it delivered exactly what I needed, a bittersweet, often very funny ode to friendship at that specific age when one is still figuring out who they are and where they are going.
In Jason Orley’s writing and directorial feature debut, Griffin Gluck stars as Mo, a high-schooler whose best friend is college dropout Zeke (Pete Davidson). Their friendship begins in Mo’s earlier years, when Zeke was dating his older sister, Kate (Emily Arlook). After Zeke and Kate break up, Mo is not ready to lose one of the most integral parts of his childhood, and so they continue their friendship well into Mo’s high school years. When he is not at school, he is at Zeke’s house, much to the chagrin of Mo’s father (Jon Cryer), who sees Zeke’s drinking, pot-smoking antics as a bad influence on Mo. As Mo is urged by Zeke to deal drugs at parties, get a tattoo, and try and win over the girl he likes (a charming Oona Laurence), consequences begin to change the dynamic of their friendship.
Something I always appreciate in screenplays for coming-of-age films is when the writer has a strong understanding of how teenagers act and speak. Jason Orley definitely has it, writing Mo as an entirely relatable teenager for today’s generation. Griffin’s performance feels entirely natural, conveying his naivete in a way that many teenagers and young adults today will understand, along with having excellent chemistry with Pete Davidson. Davidson plays Zeke as a fast-talking loose cannon, and his line delivery works extremely well with Orley’s writing; I would not be surprised if Orley wrote the character specifically for Davidson. Jon Cryer also delivers strong work here as Mo’s dad, playing up the protective qualities of the character while hinting at the desperate desire to connect with his son.
As is usual with coming-of-age films, the protagonist always has to learn through their experiences in order to grow and mature. I love how Jason Orley structures the entire film around Mo and Zeke’s friendship. I loved watching these two pal around and enjoy each other’s company, but it’s clear from the outset that Zeke is not the best influence, whether it be through his advice or putting Mo in situations that will no doubt get him into trouble, either with the law or with his parents (or both). Orley admirably juggles the likability of their friendship with the imminent drama that is destined to unfold because of it, and it creates this bittersweet quality to the whole story that is both familiar and quite different for a coming-of-age film.
On top of all that, Big Time Adolescence is simply very funny. The comedic timing is evident in the performances and the writing, but also in the editing. One of our first introductions to Zeke is him showing a younger Mo and former girlfriend Kate, in a theoretical situation, how to tell someone that their dog has died. He urges Mo to try a performance, and then turns to Kate, telling her “okay, now it’s your turn.” The scene cuts to an older Kate, in the moment she breaks up with Zeke, crying uncontrollably. The editing also helps convey Mo’s relationship with his parents, who are constantly concerned about his spending time with Zeke. As Mo leaves the dinner table to go to Zeke’s house, his dad implores him to be home before a certain time, but the scene cuts before he can even finish his sentence. It’s clever editing tricks like these that add to the humor and enhance the story Corley is telling.
In individual moments, Big Time Adolescence can feel very familiar for a film of its type. All of the trials and tribulations Mo goes through in the film are instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen their fair share of coming-of-age films. But it’s the unique central friendship that helps elevate it beyond just being another one of these movies. Smartly written and bittersweet in the most affecting of ways, Big Time Adolescence is a great time at the movies.