Adult World, a dark-comedy which premiered last Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival, starts with main character, Amy (Emma Roberts), contemplating suicide while the film’s soundtrack plays a bummer-sounding song with lyrics “I contemplated suicide.” This sums up the first half of them film for me: painfully literal. Amy talks to a poster of her idol, Sylvia Plath, and decides not to kill herself by sticking her head in the oven because it’s “suicidal plagiarism.” Eventually, she goes with a plastic bag over her head, but just then the film cuts to “one year earlier” with Amy finishing up her last year of college at Syracuse University.
If you’ve ever taken any type of English or writing class, you know there’s always that one person that reads aloud using the most pretentious, over-enunciated voice. Amy is this person and Emma Roberts does an awesome job playing her. She’s obsessed with poetry and is confident that one day she’ll be a famous writer. While at college, Amy stumbles across a book of poetry from the 80s by a man name Rat Billings (John Cusack) and he becomes her new favorite writer. After moving back home to her parents’ house, Amy takes a job at a sex shop called, Adult World. I thought the fact that the store was called Adult World in a movie that’s so clearly about being part of the “adult world” was, like the suicide to suicide lyrics, over doing it. I’ve since found out that the store actually exists in Syracuse, New York, which sort of makes it better, but I still can’t get over how forced that seems. At the store, Amy makes friends with a boy her age, Alex (Evan Peters) and a cross-dresser named Rubia (Armando Riesco).
Amy becomes close with Rubia, moving in with him/her after she gets in a fight with her parents about responsibility. Soon, Amy hears Rat is having a signing at a nearby bookstore and she also learns that he lives in her town. We later get a crazy scene of Rubia and Amy riding a tandem bike to follow Rat to his house. I’m guessing Amy is supposed to live near the University which would explain why she found Rat’s book there and that explains why he happens to live in the same town… but really none of this was clear. And the bike-made-for-two scene was ridiculous. Rat thinks Amy is an insane stalker, which she is, but eventually she convinces him to let her clean his house so he can be her mentor.
So that’s how the first half went; a lot of unbelievable coincidences and lack of explanation. But then! Things took a turn and the movie started making its point in a less forced way. Amy and her friends sit around and contemplate life at age 22. This was a little corny, but realistic. I’ve been there so I know that sometimes corniness is real and Adult World did a good job of showing this. In another scene, Amy pounds Jack Daniels while submitting work to a magazine online which is dramatic, but still realistic. Emma Roberts is great throughout the whole movie, not just the second half. In one scene in particular, she shows up at Rat’s house wasted and her drunken weirdness comes across as genuine. Her character is supposed to be awkward and I couldn’t help but think of another young actress, Kristen Stewart, who is somewhat known for the way she does awkward. Kristen tends do it by stuttering her lines and making that face. Emma’s awkwardness comes off much more authentically.
The film’s climax happens after Rat agrees to include Amy in an anthology he’s putting together, but it turns out the book is the type of thing that’s “sold at Urban Outfitters.” Amy is then forced to learn that, as Rat says, “not everyone can be the President or Beyonce.” Basically, that Amy’s generation (a generation that I am a part of) can’t do whatever they want and that they have become a bunch of spoiled losers that were told they were special too much as kids. This is a popular point to make recently– people love defining generations, I guess– and the second half of Adult World does a good, although still pretty heavy-handed, job of making it. Towards the end, we get the idea through Alex that the generation isn’t all bad and fame hungry and that Rat, too, was bit like this in his time. Comparatively, these additional points are just hinted at, so if they were supposed to be part of the message, they should have been equally as strong. Also, I’m just over this idea being the broad generalization of my age group. I don’t know anyone who’s as spoiled as we’re all supposed to be, but that’s a whole other story.
In the end, I was really happy with Emma Robert’s performance. I’d never seen her in anything and she exceeded my expectations. She really kept me watching especially during the slow first half. I just wish that we’d gotten to the feeling of the second half faster. I could almost feel the movie finding itself. Sometimes when you write, it takes a while to feel out how things are gonna go. Wait! Amy was finding herself too! And she’s a writer in a movie about writing. Writers love writing about writing. Was this done on purpose then? Was the film just mirroring a writer’s journey? If it was supposed to, like the existence of a real Adult World store, I don’t think it helps. It would require that everyone watching pick up on this and I don’t think that’s an okay thing to assume. Honestly, I don’t think that’s what the filmmakers were going for, but it really demonstrates how imbalanced the movie felt.
So, If you like Emma Roberts, or want to be pleasantly surprised by her, then watch Adult World. If you like grand statements on a generation, watch Adult World. And if you don’t feel like sitting through a movie for 45 minutes before it gets good, then Adult World might be one to pass on.
(Photos: Treehouse Pictures via IndieWire)