Back in the Summer of ‘87

Greg Mottola’s wonderful Adventureland.

Jesse Eisenberg and Martin Starr in Adventureland

Adventureland (Miramax Films), Greg Mottola’s tale of coming of age in Pittsburgh in 1987, has the note-perfect melancholy of a classic young adult novel. Like many books of that genre, the film takes place over one very special, and often very shitty, summer. James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a brainy and high-strung kid fresh out of college, has been counting on touring Europe before starting grad school in the fall. But when his secretly alcoholic father (Jack Gilpin, wonderful in a nearly wordless part) gets demoted at work, James has to contribute to the family income by taking a job at Adventureland, a seriously downscale amusement park.

To his humiliation, James is soon handing out lame prizes (a stuffed banana with googly eyes?) and mopping up children’s barf at a game booth. His fellow reluctant carnies include Joel (Martin Starr), a pipe-smoking, Gogol-reading misfit, and Em (Kristen Stewart), the slinkster-cool tough girl of every indie boy’s dreams. Em offers James rides home from work, Lou Reed and Big Star blasting from the car stereo, and confides in him about her miserable family. But she’s secretly involved with Mike Connell (Ryan Reynolds), Adventureland’s mechanic and chief Lothario, who’s both much older and a married man. Frustrated by Em’s reluctance to go beyond friendship, James takes up with the park slut, Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva), only to discover that beneath her hoop-earringed, gum-snapping exterior lurks a Catholic prude.

All this sounds like a retread of raunchy, deliberately outrageous teen sex comedies— American Pie, say, or Mottola’s last film, Superbad. Instead, Adventureland harks back to the introspective teen rom-coms of the 1980s, with Jesse Eisenberg in the John Cusack role. The gangly Eisenberg, with his soulful gaze and unruly mop of curls, is adorable enough to spread on toast, as anyone who saw him in The Squid and the Whale can attest. And the amount of screen time devoted to James’ emotional, as opposed to hormonal, fluctuations makes Adventureland as likely to appeal to girls as boys. Kristen Stewart, who gets more ethereally lovely with each screen appearance, plays a darker and richer variant of the disaffected schoolgirl she played in Twilight. And Ryan Reynolds, an actor I’ve never really gotten the point of before, invests his potentially unappealing character—a would-be musician with a weakness for jailbait—with unexpected layers of pathos and humor.

The film doesn’t go to archival extremes in its period correctness (it’s not, like last year’s The Wackness, a nostalgic museum piece), but the details feel just right: The cool girl wears army fatigues and drives a dented hatchback. As the meek wife of Adventureland’s cheapskate manager (Bill Hader), Kristen Wiig wears sublimely awful blue jeans, high-waisted and acid-washed. The tacky disco the kids frequent is called Razzmatazz, and the nice restaurant reserved for special dates is called (this one kills me) The Velvet Touch. The soundtrack captures the way pop music can function as the backdrop of a love affair: It includes a few classic ‘80s touchstones (the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven,” the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied”) but also unearths worthy smaller hits like Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over.”

Perhaps the outsized affection I feel for this modest little movie is partly generational: I’m only two years younger than Greg Mottola, and in the summer of 1988, one year after the film takes place, I was a college grad with a degree even more useless than James’ and a crap job at a bakery. But surely you don’t have to have lived through the summer of Iran-Contra and Robocop in order to remember (or look forward to) how the worst summer job ever can turn into the ride of your life.

Slate V: The critics on Adventureland and other new movies