The time has come for Pete Davidson to enter an age-old ritual for a "Saturday Night Live" cast member: his first lead role in a movie. Dating back to the days of John Belushi headlining "Animal House," "SNL" cast members have frequently tried their hand at parlaying their sketch comedy fame into the world of starring in movies. Some have seen more success than others (remember the dreadful "Master of Disguise"?) but it tends to happen as frequently as the sun rising. Now, Davidson's gotten his chance to headline a motion picture with "Big Time Adolescence," a movie that premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival before recently dropping on Hulu.
Sixteen-year-old Monroe Harris (Griffin Gluck) doesn't have any friends. Wait, let me rephrase that: He doesn't have any friends in his age range. But he is best buds with 23-year-old slacker Zeke Presanti (Davidson), a guy who used to date Monroe's older sister seven years ago. Back when Zeke was dating Monroe's sister, he treated Monroe more like a peer than a little kid. Thus, even when Zeke broke up with his Monroe's sister, Zeke and Monroe stayed buddies. Flash forward to the modern-day world and Monroe spends every free second with Zeke, a guy who isn't exactly ideal role-model material.
"Big Time Adolescence" makes it clear from the outset that there's a large gap between how Monroe perceives Zeke and how toxic their dynamic actually is. This is accomplished through a smart piece of editing from Waldemar Centeno that begins with an intimate medium shot of Monroe hanging out with a crowd of Zeke's friend, complete with a soft-rock tune that conveys a sense of wistfulness. Then we hard cut to a wider shot of just these two hanging out in an empty parking lot while decrepit stores linger behind them with no accompanying music to undercut the seediness of the location. For a moment, we were inside Monroe's head where he views everything around him with rose-colored glasses before Centeno drops reality on the viewer like a ton of bricks.
There's plenty of nicely timed pieces of editing like that to be found throughout "Big Time Adolescence" that help to accentuate both the jokes and themes in the screenplay by Jason Orley (who also directs). The script is solidly-constructed, particularly in terms of slowing things down to make it clear to the viewer why Monroe and Zeke are friends. Sure, a lot of their relationship is informed by Zeke letting Monroe do whatever he wants around his bachelor pad. But a small moment of the two of them gradually dancing goofier and goofier to a record that Zeke just bought is the sort of realistic moment of connection that helps to sell why these two are friends in the first place.
It's also interesting to see how Orley doesn't make any bones about Zeke not being a good influence for the younger Monroe. Zeke could have been just another goofball man-child but "Big Time Adolescence" makes a conscious choice to approach him as someone with real rough edges and darkness. An offhand comment from Zeke about how he was once on his way to a rehab stint that he never actually attended, or Zeke bleakly commenting on how life is "a void" while staring at a painting lend a unique sense of quiet emptiness to this character. It also helps that Davidson does good work in the role. Though initially, it seems like he might be stuck too much in the dialogue rhythm patterns of his "SNL" characters, he eventually makes Zeke his own creation and he handles the darker corners of the role quite well.
Unfortunately, not all of the dark elements that "Big Time Adolescence" approaches achieve the same success as Davidson's performance. Sometimes, the movie just doesn't seem prepared to deal with the full-range consequences of the subjects it's tackling. In particular, the last half-hour sees "Big Time Adolescence" going down more predictable routes with its material. This includes an encounter between underage Monroe and Zeke's adult ex-girlfriend that proves superfluous to the plot. It also had me questioning why so many of these adolescent boys' stories (see also "Mid90s") include this kind of behavior as examples of "exciting" coming-of-age milestones. What a disturbing trend.
For the most part, though, "Big Time Adolescence" proves to be an engaging tale about coming to terms with the idea that the people you idolize might not be worth idolizing. Plus, it allows Davidson to show off some noteworthy chops as a dramatic performer. I'll be curious to see what he does next as a leading man.