What next? It’s the question on Sonny, Duane, and Jacy’s minds as they finish high school. It’s a question that places The Last Picture Show in a long and varied film tradition exploring the choices young people face as they finish one stage of life and look to the next. And it’s an endless source of drama, a way to see how different personalities come to define the importance of monogamy and career. For this related review, I revisited Greg Mottola’s 2009 film Adventureland, the sweet, understated story of one awkward college graduate’s “What’s next?” moment.
A mix of romance, comedy, and drama, Adventureland tells the story of James [Jesse Eisenberg], a recent Oberlin graduate struggling to find his way in 1987. When his father is demoted, James is forced to cancel a summer trip to Europe and take a menial job at a Pittsburgh amusement park. An aspiring journalist, James finds his academic diction and frequent literary allusions are not much use in running carnival games under a zealous manager and his fawning partner [Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig]. James is also an earnest if inexperienced romantic, and is forced to confront his naivete when he falls for Em [Kristen Stewart], a sullen yet enigmatic girl who, in her efforts to sabotage herself, has become numb to both sex and love.
Soulful, vulnerable performances from both romantic leads power the movie. But that’s not to say either character is particularly likeable. Eisenberg’s social awkwardness and naive sincerity feel almost frustratingly real, as does Stewart’s performative self-pity. Both personalities are instantly recognizable to anyone who went to high school or college. Meanwhile, Hader and Wiig, while always welcome sights, provide explicitly comic moments that don’t always sit well with the rest of the film’s tone.
Music plays a vital role in establishing mood, particularly via Yo La Tengo’s lovely, spare original score, an audio lens flare to signify the fading light of James’ summer days. As the academic and cultural cocoon James has enjoyed in college begins to break apart, his mixtape of Lou Reed and Big Star is increasingly punctuated with pop songs like “Rock Me Amadeus,” enervating reminders of the superficiality and commercial concerns of the real world.
On the surface, similarities to The Last Picture Show abound. Both take place two decades before they were filmed, with soundtracks intended to fill in the sense of time and place. Both feature young people weighing their romantic and financial options. While their male protagonists don’t have much in common, Jacy and Em are both troubled and troublesome girls from wealthy, broken families. Seemingly casual social situations have high stakes, illustrated in each film with an awkward scene of undressing for a pool party.
But when it’s time to depict the archetypal moments of adolescence and early adulthood, the differences between the two are stark. Sonny and Jacy lose their innocence by sharing in the broken dreams and sham marriages of their neighbors and family. Poor Billy does so via an anticlimactic deflowering, a vivid illustration of the meaninglessness of romantic and sexual bonds. In contrast, Adventureland’s James is out to lose his innocence to a soul mate. When the moment arrives, it’s accompanied by affectionate gestures and new hopes for love and stability in the future. In the end, a comparison with Adventureland mostly serves to emphasize the bleakness of The Last Picture Show’s worldview. The film is all the more memorable for it, but for a breezier alternative that mixes a little sweet in with the bitter, Adventureland is a lovely experience.