When I was in high school and wanted to spend a summer night out past my midnight curfew, I would wait until the wall clock by the front door struck the hour and, in one motion, I would slide the deadbolt open, slip out the door and close it behind me while the chimes were still going.
I had to sneak out because the assumption was that my parents would be terrified if I was ever out past midnight. They would punish me to protect me from the monsters that lurked somewhere out there in the dark. I was never caught, though, so I was able to run directly into the arms and beds of all those terrors, as long as I kept getting the timing right.
The summer after my first year of college, I came home and resumed those same ill-advised trysts, now an important year older. The deadbolt no longer scared me because there were no deadbolts or curfews where I had been. The newfound confidence that came home with me would have been fine on its own, but like a puddle of melted popsicle it came with a lot of other dirty things stuck to it: infidelity, regret, and a beautifully blossoming ability to self-medicate.
When you’re young, summer is a bridge that dangles between semesters and eventually stands there, daunting and unprotected, trying to lure you across a deep chasm and into the world of adulthood. It’s terrifying, but the views are spectacular.
In Adventureland, James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) wants to take his time getting across that bridge, starting with a trip to Europe and taking the long way through grad school. But as soon as he gets home for the summer, his parents tell him they can no longer afford to bankroll his European trip—and Columbia isn’t looking too good, either. He has to get a summer job and, with his limited skills, the only one he can land is at the titular local amusement park.
Although initially distraught about the possibility of spending a summer as part of the Games crew, James quickly befriends Joel (Martin Starr) and Em (Kristen Stewart). Early in the summer, Em invites James to a party at her house while her father and stepmother are gone. James and Em end up in the pool together, barely clothed. She is brazen. Like many summer parties, this one serves as an important catalyst. James and Em are fresh acquaintances, but in the embrace of the chlorine, they begin to see each other a little more clearly.
After the party is over, a mysterious phone call ends with Connell, the park’s resident handyman/musician/philanderer, at Em’s door. It’s clear that he’s welcome, but Em never smiles. Not when she looks at him. Not when they kiss.
Is it daddy issues that drive her into his arms? Or is the mere fact of having a father and becoming a woman enough to make older men more enticing? Connell is exactly the kind of monster that lurks in the dark. Charming. Handsome. Married. Not afraid to wrap his arms around her and hoist her hips up onto the back of the sofa. And she clings to him because her value to him is her value to herself.
Getting older is not a choice. Becoming an adult whom your parents have no control or claim over is not a choice. But its inevitability doesn’t make it any less frightening. When there is no one listening for the deadbolt after midnight, no one looking over your shoulder when you check your email, no one trying to keep you home at all, late night passions take on a whole new color. It’s not a playful scandal anymore. It’s your life.
Em, like all of us, is flawed. Not damaged, seemingly, by her own insecurities but rather by the abandonment of her father who replaced her dead mother much too quickly. Being flawed is actually an integral part of her cool girl persona, after all. Em’s damage is implied by sarcasm, cut off shorts, and band t-shirts. The music.
What would a summer be without a soundtrack? Adventureland may suffer somewhat from the desire to include every favorite song from its era—even the guilty pleasures like the park’s incessant “Rock Me Amadeus”—but the resulting soundtrack goes a long way toward locating the film within a very specific time period, and even supplies the season.
With so much free time in the summer, favorite albums or mixtapes are often on repeat. For me, that summer, it was Liz Phair. She had a new (terrible) album out but I was still listening to whitechocolatespaceegg. Even though I don’t remember telling him, one of the men I was seeing (though perhaps that’s not exactly the right word for what we were doing in his basement apartment) knew I liked her and took me to a show. It’s strange to go out in public with someone you normally see only in private. What is there to talk about in the car or between bands or with his much older friends? All that new self-confidence seemed to disappear when I had my clothes on and all I felt was anxiety. Even the raw and powerful femininity of Liz Phair couldn’t rescue me from that fear. My body was fine, as perfect as it would ever be, even. But what else could I offer? What else would I ever be able to offer?
James is a character entirely on brand for Jesse Eisenberg: slouchy, awkward, overly intellectual with a tendency to talk too much at the worst possible times. But Em likes him anyway because it’s college summer. Because there is nothing to do but drink and stay out late, giving flimsy excuses for the time your car finally rolls up the driveway. Does any father of a college-age girl actually want to know where she was last night, anyway?
The 4th of July comes and Em is still embroiled in her affair with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), while seeing James at the same time. During the fireworks, Em leans up against James and the innocent rush of attraction, of anticipation is stunning. A spark is a bridge, too.
As the summer comes to a close, Em ends her relationship with Connell but as she’s leaving their love nest in a torrent of tears, James comes out of the shadows to confront her about the affair, spouting stinging words and then driving away. Em goes back to New York and maybe everything is over. Isn’t that the beautiful simplicity of a summer romance? In a torrent of tears or a rearview mirror, it’s clean and it’s over.
But James can’t let go. He takes a bus to New York, no tuition for his first semester at Columbia, and waits for her in the rain. She tries to send him away but he tells her that “you can’t just avoid everyone you screw up with.” There is an uncomfortable Prince Charming quality to this conclusion, but the idea that James can recognize that Em is indeed being too hard on herself, and can offer her forgiveness, is where the real fairy tale comes in. Is that what growing up is? Letting go of pride and accepting the faults and flaws of the people you love? If so, how many adults have ever made it that far?
Adventureland, I realize now, is definitely about James. But I often forget that because the way in which Em splinters under the pressures of adulthood, of womanhood, is what actually makes the film special. The story of a college graduate losing his virginity is hardly enough to make me look twice, but the story of a girl who is clearly drowning in sorrow and self-doubt is something that speaks directly to me.
We’ll never know if this young romance will go past one passionate night, but the image of the rain soaked young lovers gives us hope that there is something worthwhile on the other side of the bridge.
Maybe that’s the hardest part about the summer and its inherent, torrid romances: you walk across the bridge together but as the path widens on the other side it becomes so easy to lose contact. And when you see that disconnection coming, it feels that much more tempting to jump
Gillian Singletary is a writer living in Los Angeles. She loves dogs, eyeliner, and air conditioning. She used to be a teenager and somehow she survived.