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True Adolescents
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by Jay Seaver

"Coming of age at 15 or 35."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: "True Adolescents" is a small-budgeted independent film that's just a swift kick or two from the mainstream. Yes, the execution is mostly what one would expect from the recent wave of chatty, self-examining indie filmmakers, but the basic theme of "immature adult forced to man up when placed in charge of kids" is pretty standard. That's no knock on it; this is an entertaining movie, and if this wave of filmmakers want to be something other than indie darlings, doing stuff like this won't hurt.

The immature adult is Sam (Mark Duplass), a guy in his early to mid thirties fronting a local Seattle rock band that's not really going anywhere. A fight with his girlfriend leads to her kicking him out of the apartment, and since none of his friends have much interest in letting him crash on their couches, he winds up in the spare room of his aunt Sharon (Melissa Leo). When Sharon's ex-husband backs out of a camping trip he'd planned on taking with their teenage son Oliver (Bret Loehr) and his best friend Jake (Carr Thompson) - and Sam's gig that weekend gets canceled - it's time for him to start earning his keep by chaperoning the teenagers.

Yes, you've heard this story before. Writer/director Craig Johnson isn't trying to re-invent the wheel here, but he does find a relatively unique way to present it. A mainstream film would probably try to stuff it with more wacky one-off characters for Sam and company to meet on the road and trail, or structure the last act so as to present them with more obvious challenges, or ones which require their specific skills. (If Jack Black were starring in this movie, there would be a bear somewhere.) Instead, Johnson keeps the cast fairly tight and lets situations play out to their full awkwardness.

Most obviously, the big turning point moment probably wouldn't make it into a studio film. Fortunately, there are no nervous execs here, because aside from setting up the direction of the rest of the movie, it is a hilarious and unexpected payoff to a sequence that was already picking up plenty of chuckles from the audience. It's a perfectly executed little moment. Not all of the film's moments are, although Johnson racks up a pretty good score in terms of how many times he give the actor or story room to get the point across versus how many times it would be nice if he'd just get on with it.

I'd just seen Mark Duplass in another festival film a couple days earlier (Humpday), and when reviewing that film I didn't spend quite as much time as I perhaps should have on the fact that Mark Duplass is a funny guy. He seems to have become something of a go-to guy for the area of intersection on the Venn Diagram of "independent film" and "comedy", which isn't terribly large, and he delivers another funny performance here, playing Sam broadly enough enough to be amusing, but not so much that we either don't believe in him or take too active a dislike to him. This works in part because of Loehr and Thompson, who frequently find themselves playing straight men to Duplass's clown. They manage to avoid playing Oliver and Jake as just little adults, but instead as kids in their early teens getting some severely mixed signals from Sam.

Those aren't particularly clever or cutting new insights; if you look to independent film for the sort of thing that you can't get from the studios, "True Adolescents" is probably something of a disappointment; it almost feels like more of a practice film in that way. Either way, it's still a pretty decent coming-of-age story, whether the age is 15 or 35.

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originally posted: 03/28/09 09:28:07
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Vail Film Festival For more in the 2009 Vail Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Florida Film Festival For more in the 2009 Florida Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 30-Aug-2011


  DVD: 30-Aug-2011

Directed by
  Craig Johnson

Written by
  Craig Johnson

  Mark Duplass
  Melissa Leo
  Bret Loehr
  Carr Thompson

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