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This coming-of-age movie is smarter than it seems
Fonzie had "ayyyy!" Joey from Blossom had "woah!" And Pete Davidson's Zeke from Big Time Adolescencehas "sick!"
To Zeke, "sick!" is a declaration of joy and alarm, of pride and encouragement. You kissed a girl you like? Sick! You see a bright orange '70s reggae album featuring a dude in a giant 'fro? Sick! You've discovered a new revenue stream from reselling your medical marijuana to high schoolers? Sick! Pete Davidson, the zonked-out, tattooed Saturday Night Live cast member and occasional TMZ-headline, deals in "sick!"s like Michelangelo did in marble.
Davidson's Zeke is an archetype familiar to many of us, but hasn't been represented too much in movies. To a 16-year-old, a 23-year-old with his own pad ("the chillest place ever"), where you can drink and smoke and play video games, is a god. When someone with independence treats you like a grown-up, but only wants to have fun, it is an irresistible combo. And despite the protestations of well-meaning parents, discovering that this charismatic man-child is something of a loser can only happen in its own time.
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Mo (Griffin Gluck, a spitting image for a shorter George Harrison) got to know Zeke as just a tyke, when his older sister (a hilarious Emily Arlook) was dating him. She quickly dropped him when his irresponsible side showed, but the big bro-little bro dynamic Mo and Zeke shared lived on. Now it's six years later and Mo has hardly any friends at school, but plenty of laughs over at Zeke's bong-cluttered nest.
Writer-director Jason Orley's script absolutely crackles with wit and all the performances feature exquisite timing. This movie is great the first time, but watching it twice, as I did, offers many pleasures, as there is a dense tapestry of background comedy. And much of it comes from Orley's refusal to let his characters be anything but three-dimensional.
For example, there's Mo, much cooler than most 16-year-olds, who brims with confidence one minute (willing to call the girl he likes without much prep) then collapsing the next (whoopsie: he has nothing to say). There's a terrific moment when he trots up a hall and is about to hop over a railing. As he's about to do it, he realizes he's too short, so he immediately reassesses and slips underneath. He does't look too slick doing it, but it's Mo's reality, and he takes it in stride. Tiny moments like this are what set a filmmaker apart.
Then, of course, there's Davidson, in the part he was born to play. He is absolutely without question a bad influence on Mo. And for sure any 23-year-old who keeps a 16-year-old as their little pet has got some confidence issues. And yet, he's not a villain. The affection Zeke has is real, and beneath the tattoos, inability to maintain a job, quick slide into (mild) drug-dealing, cheating on his girlfriend, and willingness to waste money on an unnecessary foot massager, he's still, in a weird way, a good guy. Or, at least, a good friend.
Suburbanites especially ought to go bananas for Big Time Adolescence (it is shot in the Syracuse area) but also anyone who longs for more films like Edge of Seventeen and Boyhood than typical dopey high school fare. There's also something magical about goony Pete Davidson in a grocery store asking, "Yo, bro, you have any pea shoots?" I can't explain why it's funny. And that's exactly what makes it so funny.
TV Guide Rating: 5/5
Big Time Adolescence is now on Hulu.