When describing Big Time Adolescence to a Sundance Film Festival audience, writer-director Jason Orley aptly characterized his debut film as “a John Hughes film layered in weed smoke.”
Indeed, the film hits those Hughesian beats of friendship, tricky father/kid relationships, and high school crushes, but there’s enough debaucherous substance use to separate Orley’s film from, say, Pretty in Pink. But that’s not the major factor: A hilarious-but-heartbreaking coming-of-age story about outgrowing your heroes, Big Time Adolescence finds star Pete Davidson playing up his media persona and skewering it at the same time.
Davidson plays 23-year-old college dropout Zeke, the best friend of 16-year-old Mo (Griffin Gluck), whose sister he dated six years ago. To Mo, Zeke is a big brother and role model: he asks for advice when he’s interested in a girl, tells him stories about school, and even does his homework at Zeke’s house. The older guy also introduces Mo to drinking and smoking, and gives him drugs to sell to his classmates.
The relationship between Mo and Zeke, and the chemistry between Gluck and Davidson, is everything in a movie like Big Time Adolescence. There’s a lot of sharp back-and-forth between the two, aided by Davidson’s dry delivery and childish petulance, which, in terms of maturity, tells us without telling us that he and Mo aren’t far off. At one point in the movie, Mo surprises Zeke with an errand to his sister’s house. Zeke is visibly uncomfortable going to his ex’s house, amusing Mo to no end. “It brings me a lot of joy to see you flustered, I’ve never seen you like this,” Mo says smuggly. “...YOU’RE MEAN,” Zeke whines. The line killed at Sundance.
Mo realizes the hard way that emulating Zeke will make his life stagnant. He gets expelled for selling drugs and a court orders him to mandated community service and drug testing. Breaking off his relationship with Zeke winds up being the pathway to shaping his own identity. But when Zeke and Mo run into each other months later, Big Time Adolescence makes its big play about outgrowing your past and moving to better things — even if there’s turbulence getting there. Based on what we’ve seen of his transparent life, perhaps Davidson can relate.
There’s no escaping Davidson’s public identity while watching him play a stoner. His many tattoos, his half lidded eyes, and his propensity to have a joint in hand line up with his Ariana Grande-fueled tabloid headlines and Instagram mayhem. But Big Time Adolescence proves Davidson also has range; in a scene in which he drinks and karaokes alone, Zeke finally expresses the grief he suffered after a break-up with most recent girlfriend, Holly. He may be drunk, but there’s an arresting level of sadness behind those eyes.
Davidson might break character while performing in Saturday Night Live sketches, but as an actor who can flex comedy muscles to convey something deeper, he’s has found success — and others are taking notice. After Big Time Adolescence premiered at Sundance, Judd Apatow announced that his next film would be a semi-autobiographical dramedy about Davidson’s own life. After being open with his mental health struggles and a very public breakup, a renewed focus on being lowkey seems to be working in his favor.
Joi Childs is a freelance writer and sarcasm enthusiast. Born and raised in NYC, she loves writing and talking about the intersection of marketing and nerd life. Her work has appeared at The Hollywood Reporter, The Verge, Okayplayer, and many other outlets.