Whenever I watch a high school coming-of-age film, I am hit with a pang of regret. Not that I didn’t enjoy my high school experience, but watching the experiences of others encourages all kinds of painful what-ifs. What if I really missed out? What if I did it all wrong? “You’re only young once,” they say, yet rarely does life offer the catharsis of the coming-of-age film. I guess that’s what nostalgia feels like: smiling at the stuff you can’t get back.
“Big Time Adolescence,” the directorial debut of Jason Orley, is in many ways a response to that sentiment. Not entirely, to be sure; it leans hard into high school tropes (“I wish the girl I like would notice me!”) and indie movie cliches (because what’s a coming-of-age film without an underwater shot in a swimming pool?). But “Big Time Adolescence” comes out on the other side with a refreshing new thesis: high school is not the best years of your life, though it can be if you let it.
Our protagonist is scrappy, straight-laced Mo (Griffin Gluck of “American Vandal”), though he’d prefer not to be thought of that way. Mo doesn’t have many friends his own age, but he does have a best friend in Zeke. A high school ex of Mo’s older sister, Zeke (Pete Davidson) is stuck in a perpetual state of arrested development. He dropped out of college, can’t keep a job and aimlessly spends his days drinking, smoking and getting tattoos. But, as Zeke himself is quick to point out, he was “a legend” in high school, and Mo idolizes that cool-guy persona.
When one of Mo’s classmates catches wind of his shenanigans with Zeke, the high schooler finds himself cordially invited to his first senior party if, of course, he brings along some booze. So he does (with Zeke’s help), and for good measure, he brings a little pot, too. Before you know it, Mo (and his much older plug) are peddling drugs and alcohol to all the upperclassmen. Mo’s got a little confidence, that girl he likes has noticed him, everything’s going to plan… until he realizes Zeke might not be the best role model.
Pete Davidson, polarizing as he may be, is perfectly cast as Zeke, leaning into his public persona in a way that is open and honest. Sure, he doesn’t exactly step outside his comfort zone — sometimes it feels like he isn’t even acting — but the ends justify the means. He ultimately turns in a winning performance with all the humor you’d expect and even a tinge of sadness. Griffin Gluck also does good work as Mo, earning the audience’s sympathy early on and rising to the challenge towards the end when the film takes a dramatic left turn.
As for Jason Orley, it’s clear that “Big Time Adolescence” is his very first film. The pacing feels a bit off, especially in the beginning due to some clunky voiceover and a rushed flashback. At the same time, the presentation is generally flat, despite some — How should I put this? — interesting needle drops (“Mo Bamba”? In this economy?). Yet, Orley shows a lot of promise elsewhere, especially among his actors, most of whom are only tweens. He has a good grasp on comedy and makes the segue into drama feel natural and earned.
At the heart of “Big Time Adolescence” is a message you don’t often hear at the movies: life goes on after high school! Rarely does the coming-of-age film subscribe to that mantra; more often than not it mythicizes your four years instead. But nobody wants to be the kid who peaked; nobody wants to be Zeke. Mo has to face this: the consequences of worshipping at the high school altar.
So yes, adolescence is transformative. That’s what makes it meaningful. But it’s only “big time” if you keep evolving afterwards. 6/10
This review was originally published on April 28, 2020 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.