Tuesday, July 31, 2012

True Adolescents: Camping with an Apatovian Peter Pan

I love the twenty-first century cinematic exploration of male perpetual adolescence just about as much as anybody. But there is always a moment when I'm watching Knocked Up or Forty Year Old Virgin or Role Models where I have to willfully not mind that the hero's emotional immaturity is defined against and made to aspire to a female character's more normative (and usually more uptight and way less funny) adult ethos. True Adolescents, written and directed by first-timer Craig Johnson and starring mublecore kid made good actor/writer/director Mark Duplass, imagines a different equation for how a juvenile thirty-something finally grows up.

Duplass's Sam hits all the major chords of an Apatovian man-boy. He's unemployed, he fantasizes about being a rock star, he performs the bare minimum of personal grooming, and he's a bit of a dick. But rather than position Sam against a love interest with more ambition and/or money (which seem to be metonyms for maturity in this genre), True Adolescents places him in juxtaposition with two, well, true adolescents: his teenaged cousin Oliver and his best friend Jake. After moving in with Jake and his mom (a predictably excellent Melissa Leo), Sam reluctantly agrees to take the boys camping after Jake's dad bails. The next three days expose, challenge, and recalibrate Sam's assumptions about what is valuable in his personality.

And that's what I really loved about the film. Rather than have Sam transform into a person radically unlike who he was before, the time he spends alternately joking with and bullying his companions, and the way he has to take control when Jake goes missing in the woods and he and Oliver get lost looking for him, forces Sam to emphasize aspects of his self--and his latent adulthood--that were there all along. To the film's credit, these woods are not metaphorical. They are dark and cold and dangerous, and Sam's stronger body, as well as his capacity for good-humored leadership, are crucial to surviving the night. True Adolescents argues that the reason Sam can become a man (and I'm using this gender designation because the major players were all male, though the film doesn't explicitly suggest this model is available only to boys) is because it's necessary. His maturity blossoms when it's needed--sort of like the seeds that only germinate in the heat of a forest fire. And, just like those trees, there's no going back once the process has been activated. The film concludes with a series of scenes that demonstrate the extent to which Sam isn't the same "greasy little bastard" he was at the beginning.

Another truly valuable--and, to my knowledge, unique--element of True Adolescents is its rigorous treatment of the casual homophobic language that serves as default slang in so many films of this type. The teasing-by-way-of-gay-slur that comes so naturally to Sam, and is already becoming second nature to boys Oliver's age, is shown to have real and potentially devastating consequences. Watching how this damage is thoughtlessly inflicted, and the attempts at repair, is one of the most moving tropes of the film.

Many thanks to the President and Creative Director of the Jonathan Alexandratos Movies You've Never Heard Of Collection for the recommendation.

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