So, perhaps you’ve seen Adventureland, a funny and surprisingly moving new period dramedy (comeda? blech) about a recent college grad forced to work at an amusement park during the summer of 1987. It was written and directed by Greg Mottola (who also directed Superbad, perhaps one of the most financially successful gay teen love stories of all time, but also wrote and directed 1996’s The Daytrippers, which I’ve been meaning to see). Some love has been thrown on this movie for its somber tone, attention to period details, and committment to showing the hazy joys that come with smoking grass in the summertime.
When I first saw the trailer, I was pretty stoked, because one of the supporting actors was Martin Starr (aka Bill Haverchuck, aka one of the best teen characters on television EVER). And I thought lead actor Jesse Eisenberg was good enough in The Squid in the Whale that I’d be willing to see what his character in that movie (also set in the mid-1980s) would be like after college.
But I was also super-incredulous because, you know, Judd Apatow has kind of ruined some stuff for me. I get bummed out every time I think of Lindsay Weir (who, as Freaks and Geeks continues to grow as a cult classic and movies like Knocked Up continue to perform well at the box office, the clearer it becomes that creator Paul Feig — who based Lindsay on his sister — had more invested in her than Apatow, who is clearly more concerned with Seth Rogen). I don’t wanna get into an Apatow bashfest but let’s just say that he doesn’t make a lot of room for the ladies in his movies. And while Adventureland isn’t an Apatow movie, the nebbish lead and troupe of Apatow veterans gave me pause. But then Dana Stevens assured me that there was room for the ladies in this one, so I felt better heading into the multiplex.
Turns out, Em Lewin, the female lead in Adventureland, played by Kristen Stewart, is a very interesting, complex character. A lot of mention has been made about the affair she has with Mike, the older, married maintenance guy/musician who may or may not have actually jammed with Lou Reed. People have also talked about her strained relationship with her distant father, who took up with Em’s stepmother while his wife was dying of cancer. And while I think all that is noteworthy, and foregrounds the melancholy listlessness that this NYU student feels, I found her music geekiness the most interesting.
Yes, that’s right. Em Lewin is a music geek. It’s evident everywhere — her posters are covered with vintage Bowie posters, she pretty much only wears (black) band t-shirts, and she has an impressive record collection with Eno and Big Star in tow, a fact James, the bookish lead, is quick to compliment her on when he first visits her house for a party. Let me stress again, because it made me so happy when I saw this scene in the theater: he compliments her record collection. I find this noteworthy, as to my knowledge, there are few instances where a movie or TV show has a female music geek. This role is usually occupied by a dude, and if he can be played by John Cusack or Adam Brody, so much the better.
For the most part, I also like Em’s relationship with James. There’s some unfortunate sermonizing from James at Em toward the end in order to stall the plot before we get our lovers back together. There’s also a super-cheesy embrace between them that closes the movie that may as well be on a poster for heteronormativity.
James also has a few weird, chauvinistic exchanges with Lisa P., the scantily-clad, pan-ethnic Catholic sex bomb who turns out to be a prude. This of course absents the unfortunate decision to mark the sexually suggestive, excessively feminine Lisa P., who is also best friends with Kelley, an African American girl who is primarily silent and confined to the background, as “ethnic.” However, it’s to the movie’s credit that Lisa actually gets fleshed out a bit and develops an actual friendship with James. (Note: I read Lisa P. as either Italian or Hispanic; though her last name is never disclosed, the movie is set in Pittsburgh, where there is a considerable Italian American community. For the record, actress Margarita Levieva is Russian American.)
There’s also a lack of girl solidarity in the movie. When a rumor spreads about Em’s affair with Mike, all the female staffers at Adventureland turn on her and Lisa P. casts all blame on Em (to which James is quick to come to Em’s defense, claiming that there’s a double standard between what practices are sexually permissible for men and women). Their dismissal of Em is also motivated by her earlier confrontation of Sue, an Irish American girl who drunkenly makes out once with co-worker Joel (played by Starr), but rejects him because he’s Jewish when he tries to ask her out. When Em stands up to Sue for Joel, it suggests an either/or — girls can only be friends with boys or only with girls. Sue doesn’t get a chance to apologize for her behavior and, because of her anti-Semitism, is perceived as evil.
But hey, sometimes women and girls are mean to each other. Sometimes they turn on each other without even really getting the whole story about a misunderstanding or an unfortunate situation. Similar things have happened to me. Maybe they’ve happened to you. So, I don’t necessarily think the movie is suggesting that female homosocial bonds aren’t impossible. But they sure can be fragile, a point that would have been better received if there were nuanced, multi-dimensional female friendships in the movie.
However, where the movie fails should not eclipse where it succeeds. And where the movie totally hits a home run for me is with Em and its use of music to convey how people can connect with one another. Thus, while I respect Amanda Marcotte’s negative assessment of the movie, and even agree with some of her opinions, I cannot fully ascribe to her stance on it. For one, I don’t think Em is dull or without a personality. I think Em is complicated, flawed, stoned, and sad. While other people may not see a sad young woman as interesting or progressive, I welcome it if only as an alternative to the oppressively cheerful, normative Manic Pixie Dream Girl, an archetype whose cheer and quirkiness might be killing her inside as surely as it subordinates her to some dumb, neurotic, tortured boy. Also, um. I’m sad sometimes. I’ve got some issues. I’ve got some insecurities. I’ve got some problems. I’ve got some dimensions. I grew up girl and I’m sure a lot of other wo/men did too. It’s hard to grow up girl. I don’t think it’s bad to show a girl who’s struggling to overcome bad choices and figuring out who she is.
Also, just as there should be strides made to open up the possibilities for queer romance and sexuality in film and TV, there should also be a place for progressive heterosexual romance. I think this one has an investment in this project. It doesn’t always succeed, but I don’t think it ever fails.
One such scene that I couldn’t wait to analyze with my partner was when James first gets a ride from Em after work and they have a exchange about him being impressed with her fandom of Hüsker Dü (not super-duper-indie, as they signed to Warner Bros. in 1986 and by 1987, when the movie takes place, would be kinda known, particularly by college kids — but an impressive period detail nonetheless that gives her power as a music fan; also it cannot be overlooked that it’s her car and she’s the driver). The fact that this exchange is wordless and written on their faces made me super-happy. A thousand Nick and Norah-esque conversations of indexical, market-researched, too-tight, too-clever banter can’t replicate how effectively this scene demonstrates how music can bring people together.
That said, I’d prefer a movie where Stewart’s character was the lead (and, of course, am looking forward to her turn as Joan Jett in the upcoming Runaways biopic) but, as its own movie, I’d recommend Adventureland.