From a distance, Big Time Adolescence might look like not much more than a low-budget showcase for lovable SNL goofball Pete Davidson. Which would be fine. But the movie is, surprisingly, quite a bit more. It's a perceptive coming-of-age tale brought to life—under the guidance of first-time director Jason Orley—by an ensemble of terrific young actors. It's funny (Orley also wrote the script), but it's filled with honest emotion, too. The picture won't change the world, but it could change an otherwise joyless day for the better. (It was intended for a theatrical-only release last weekend; but then, as world news grew dark and the home-viewing audience began to swell, it was launched on Hulu, as well.)
Davidson naturally has the showiest role here, playing Zeke, a 20-something slacker who's long past his grow-the-fuck-up date. With his bagged-out clothing and many tattoos, Davidson's Zeke is pretty much the same giddy clown we know from TV. The comic gives a carefully shaped dramatic performance, however, effectively demonstrating the shortcomings of his character's let's-party approach to life. But he's still "Pete Davidson," and the movie offers little proof that he'll be able to move beyond that persona.
But Davidson isn't actually the star. The movie really belongs to the very quietly charismatic Griffin Gluck, playing a 16-year-old high-school student named Monroe. Mo, as he's called, is a bright and well-mannered kid who met Zeke when the older guy was dating Mo's sister, Kate (Emily Arlook). During that now-concluded period, Mo came to look up to Zeke as an older-brother surrogate ("He took me to R-rated movies, he showed me a picture of a naked girl on his phone," we're told in a voice-over), and they've stayed tight ever since. (The movie doesn't acknowledge the basic creepiness of a 23-year-old man obsessively hanging out with a teenage boy—that's not the subject it wants to deal with—but it's impossible to ignore, and it's a flaw in the film.)
When Mo hears about an upcoming cool-kids party, his friend Stacey (Thomas Barbusca) says they should go and bring along booze and drugs to ease their acceptance by this older crowd. Zeke, who's made a career out of getting wasted, supplies the goods, and over the course of succeeding parties, using Mo as a dealer, he builds up a nice little sideline—one profitable enough to allow him to quit the latest of his many dismal jobs, as a clerk at a discount store. (Zeke tells Mo he eventually wants to become a talk-show host, or maybe start a podcast; later he says he's written a screenplay "in my head." We can see where his life isn't going.)
Fate tosses Mo a potential lifeline in the form of a girl named Sophie (Oona Laurence, whose clipped, no-nonsense cool recalls Emma Watson in the early Harry Potter films). We observe their first date and first kiss—both sweet, but not treacly—and then watch in dismay as Mo solicits advice on how to treat women…from Zeke, a man whose romantic experience consists largely of serial dumpings.
The movie maintains a careful balance between showing us what makes Zeke so seductive (he offers the freedom of not caring about anything) and so darkly alarming (he really doesn't care about anything at all). Will Mo wise up? Of course. In time? Don't count on it.