Finally, a coming-of-age story that has lasting appeal for adults as well as those who are coming of age.
It is a deft trick when someone can make a coming-of-age film about a nerdy graduate's transition to maturity appeal to anyone other than graduates. Those who watched The Breakfast Club and St Elmo's Fire on repeat between the ages of 15 and 21 are unlikely to have done so again since. If they did, they would probably start to spot all sorts of flaws that previously had seemed like hilarious quirks, and to realise that the lines they endlessly quoted were not quite so smart after all.
But Adventureland, which puts Jesse Eisenberg in the role of the endearingly naive nerd, manages to draw you in, regardless of your age, to its charming, bumbling and hugely entertaining story of the summer he spends working at his local theme park and has his metaphorical eyes opened. It is 1987, a time when computer games were in their crude, early stages, and people settled for throwing hoops on to things and racing wooden horses for kicks; when the peachiest prize in the park was a giant furry panda; and Rock Me, Amadeus by the Austrian one-hit wonder Falco, boomed from every stereo.
Fresh from his comparative literature major, James is preparing for a enlightening summer in Europe with his preppy friends before taking up his place at Columbia to study journalism. But after his father is demoted, the family coffers can no longer stretch to the trip and he is forced to rethink his plans and take a summer job. A self-confessed romantic ("I read poetry for pleasure sometimes"), his skills set qualifies him for nothing except running the games at Adventureland, where he buddies up with a whole new crowd of misfits, and falls, almost immediately, for the tortured Em (Kristen Stewart).
Unfortunately for James, although his feelings appear to be requited, Em is also secretly involved with the park maintenance man, a failed musician (played by Ryan Reynolds). Other employees include Lisa P, the park hottie, and pipe-smoking Joel ("it's a revolting affectation but it relaxes me"), who has plenty of helpful advice to offer, but can't seem to make any use of it himself. It sounds formulaic. And in many ways it is: there are the usual winning and losing scenarios, and James and Em's relationship has all the fluctuations you'd expect from a coming-of-age romance. But unlike the cruder versions of the genre that are now the norm, here Mottola strikes the less obvious notes, and the laugh-out-loud moments, of which there are many, come from its snappy, intelligent script and performances rather than the standard volley of gross-out gags.
Eisenberg, despite bearing an uncanny resemblance to Michael Cera of Juno fame, plays James's strange mixture of reticence and confidence with the perfect balance. And Kristen Stewart smiling? Who knew she could? The Twilight star is excellent as the conflicted but vulnerable Em, torn between her Shakespeare-reading beau and the posturing Mike. Fleshing out their story, and in fact the film's secret weapon, are its smaller players, including Martin Starr as the ultra-geek Joel, who steals every scene with his pithy, philosophical observations ("a little more than 40 per cent of these fish are dead"), and the hilariously unhinged park owners, the husband and wife duo Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig).
Mottola, who based James's experiences on his own, avoids caricature and instead weaves his world of Neil Young, stonewashed jeans and The Cure with a palpable nostalgia. Perhaps it is this that bathes the film in a slightly golden, feel-good glow. Either way, Mottola's quirky, wistful telling of this familiar story makes this every bit as good as John Hughes's coming-of-age classics. It's The Breakfast Club - but for grown-ups.