Every once in a while a terrific small-budget indie comes along and nobody even blinks. Adult World, directed by Scott Coffey (known mostly as an actor, particularly for his roles in David Lynch movies like Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway) and written by Andy Cochran, could easily get lost in the waves of well-intentioned but ultimately undistinguished little movies that wash up on the VOD shores every week. But it’s so smart — and so specific about the way young people’s expectations of glory can either funnel more crap into the world or stem that crap’s flow — that it deserves to be plucked from the drink.
Emma Roberts stars as Amy, an aspiring poet living in a small, sleepy American city. She has just graduated from college in that city, and she’s certain it’s just a matter of time until she’s published by Harper’s or the New Yorker. She expects her parents not only to pay the postage for the dozens of submissions she’s sending out, but also to float her indefinitely. When they gently explain that they can’t afford to, she takes the only job she can get, as a clerk at a porn store run by a saucy old lady (Cloris Leachman) and managed by a guy much closer to Amy’s age, Josh (Evan Peters), who’s sort of a sexier version of Jesse Eisenberg. Amy thinks the job is beneath her, and throws most of her energy into chasing — some might say “stalking” — the poet she idolizes, the misanthropic Rat Billings (Jon Cusack). When she begs him to take her on as his protégé, he responds, his delivery dry as dust, “I haven’t heard that sober and with my pants on in some time.”
Amy might have some talent, but from the bits of her poetry she reads aloud in an overeager squawk that causes Rat to wince, it’s not likely. And in a way that’s direct but also terrifically unkind, he tells her as much. That’s what makes Adult World so surprising, and so weirdly moving. Amy is among the first generation of American children who have been raised to believe they can do or be anything. An education system that gives everyone a prize just for breathing may benefit some kids, but it instills unrealistic expectations in others. Her confidence is stupendous; any actual abilities she may have shrink in its shadow.
Even though she spends much of the movie bragging about the future success she’s sure she’ll have, you still feel something for her. As Cochran and Coffey make clear, her gifts as a poet (or lack thereof) aren’t the most important thing about her; she’s smart and sensitive and just needs to find the right way to push out into the world, though it may not involve success or fame. As Rat tells her, in one of his kinder moments, “If everything were great, nothing would be great. Nothing would be special.”
Roberts’s performance is both breezy and carefully tuned: When Amy is petulant and arrogant, you want to shake her; but when disappointment strikes her, you feel it in your gut. Adult World captures beautifully, and with a great deal of self-deprecating humor, what it’s like to feel trapped in a place you think is too small to hold you. The setting of Adult World hit me particularly hard: The film was shot in Syracuse, New York, the city where I grew up and went to college. I know why Amy wants to get out; I left, too, more than 30 years ago, and as is the case in many small American cities where manufacturing jobs have dried up, things there are even tougher now. But somehow, without spelling it out, Coffey captures the beauty and safety of living in a smallish place where people know and care about you. And the filmmakers understand that you can find amazing, wonderful, eccentric people anywhere; they don’t all just automatically migrate to New York and Los Angeles. Adult World reminded me of a truth I sometimes forget. Apparently, Amy isn’t the only one who’s still learning to be a grown-up.