I saw two movies recently, both independent drama/comedies, with similar themes and scenarios, but which approached their subjects very differently. As I’ve been doing a lot more “think pieces” on movies lately–such as my essay on creative use of language in films, or political dimensions, or just straight movie reviews–I thought this would be an interesting topic for a blog article. The two films in question are Adventureland, from 2009, written and directed by Greg Mottola, and The Way, Way Back, made in 2013 and written/directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. There are actually a lot of common elements between the two films, but one that stands out immediately is that the plot of each of them centers around a young man working at a low-rent amusement park over the summer. This is an interesting commonality, and one that probably triggers a lot of nostalgic memories for those of us in my generation, who grew up in the 1980s and 90s and who either worked at these sorts of places or had friends who did.
Let’s start with Adventureland. This film is a period piece, taking place in 1987 in the environs of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the beginning of the summer high-achieving recent college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) is looking forward to going to Europe during the summer before starting graduate school, but his dad has an unexpected job change and suddenly his parents announce they’re broke. With his friends off on various other adventures, James is forced to stick around town, and gets the only job he can find: running games at Adventureland, a low-rent, trashy amusement park always on the verge of failure. While working the games he strikes up a budding romance with Em (Kristen Stewart), a co-worker, whom he thinks is moving closer to him, but who’s actually in an exploitative relationship with Mike (Ryan Reynolds), another park worker, who’s married to someone else. The twists and turns of the relationships eventually lead to totally unexpected consequences, where James must make a choice as to whether to pursue Em, and how far he’ll go to do so.
Adventureland is a very rich movie, cinematically and emotionally. It’s got a great cast, headed up by Jesse Eisenberg, a wonderful actor, and a lot of stand-out supporting roles including Kristin Wiig as the hassled matriarch of the amusement park and Martin Starr as Joel, a friend who feels he’s wasting his life away at the park. The indignities of working at a place like that are well-portrayed, such as the rigged games and cheesy T-shirts, and I especially liked how the employees get very sick of hearing the same songs (principally Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”) played over and over again on the park’s PA system. From a human standpoint the film is a great coming-of-age story because it shows a young person being forced to adapt to changing life circumstances, where something happens that leads you in a totally different life direction. It’s often hard for someone who’s 21 or 22 to adapt to this sort of thing especially when their future seems meticulously planned out, as James’s is here. But this is what life does to us. Adventureland captures both the frustration and the sense of opportunity inherent in that kind of situation. And as an 80s period piece, it’s absolutely spot-on!
The Way, Way Back is in some ways a little more introspective and also a little more slapstick. Taking place in the present day, it involves Duncan (Liam James), a shy, withdrawn 14-year-old, who’s dragged along on a family vacation to a Cape Cod beach house by his mother (Toni Collette) and her boyfriend, the obnoxious, domineering Trent (Steve Carell). The adults have a heyday boozing and acting badly at the beach, while the older teenagers, like Duncan’s sister, have their own exclusive clique. After coming into increasing conflict with Trent, Duncan wanders off and winds up at the Water Wizz amusement park, which is essentially an aquatic version of Adventureland–and just as run-down and cheesy. Duncan is at first mistaken for an employee by the colorful, profane Owen (Sam Rockwell), but as he begins hanging out at Water Wizz more often eventually he becomes an employee, and woven into the intrapersonal conflicts going on among the various co-workers. Duncan’s family situation comes to a head, which is the main focus of the latter part of the plot, but much of the film is about Duncan’s own world which centers around the water park and what he learns about himself there.
The Way, Way Back plays the amusement park more for straight laughs than does Adventureland, but both films have at their center a young man’s discovering a sense of self in these bizarre, cynical and absurd surroundings. In The Way, Way Back the “Holy Grail” of the water park is an urban legend that says a skilled kid can pass someone on a water slide. In Adventureland the “Holy Grail” is a person, the alluring Lisa P., with whom everyone wants a date. But both elements are essentially teenage mythology. Touches like this cut through the straight drama aspects of the stories and amuse us on a real level, because most of us have experienced something like this in our own childhoods. Movies about teenagers and young people tend to brutalize adult audiences with memories of the shame and awkwardness of being young–both of these films, however, keep this tendency in check for the most part, and thus it could be said that understatement and subtlety are part of the directors’ skill in handling the material.
Both of these films are very well done, enjoyable and thought-provoking. They’re classic “indie” films, and both of them use that style of filmmaking to a great advantage. And if you’ve ever worked at an amusement park or know someone who did, both Adventureland and The Way, Way Back will ring very true.