When I interviewed Marc Maron a couple of weeks ago he made a really interesting observation about the challenges of working against type when an audience has a really intimate understanding of who you are. He said he isn’t “afforded any mystery” following years of openness on stage and the WTF podcast. It’s something he’s working to push past as an actor and, in a way, it feels like the same kind of thing that could challenge Pete Davidson as he looks to grow his profile outside of SNL, stand-up, and tabloid coverage of his dating life. Because we know Pete, or, to be more on point, we think we do thanks to his willingness to mine his life for jokes and be open about his issues. But in the buzzed-about festival fave Big Time Adolescence (which was released a week early and is now available to stream on Hulu), Davidson and writer/director Jason Orley find a way to use that assumed familiarity to their advantage, pulling us in closer to the story with Davidson’s naturalistic and egoless performance.
As Zeke, Davidson is pretty much who we’d imagine he’d be if not for his SNL success or Ariana Grande breakup assisted notoriety. Zeke is a personable, tatted slacker in his mid-20s who likes to get fucked up and play video games with his friends in between shifts as a clerk at a Best Buy stand-in. To 16-year-old Mo, (played with appropriate angst and awkwardness by American Vandal’s Griffin Gluck), Zeke is a hero, a friend, and a surrogate big brother. Introduced to him as a kid, Zeke is Mo’s sister’s ex-boyfriend. This sparks an awkward acceptance of Mo and Zeke’s friendship despite mounting concern (and jealousy) by the boy’s father, played by Jon Cryer, who is great as someone trying to deal with losing his son to adulthood and Zeke’s influence while mostly existing in the margins of this story.
Zeke isn’t necessarily trying to steal Mo from his family, but he does like having the kid around as a tag-along who keeps the flame of his high school glories alive. Something that helps to keep him from getting too far down the rabbit hole of self-realization. Despite his sometimes selfish needs, however, there’s legit affection between the two and tremendous chemistry between Davidson and Gluck. But these kinds of fraternal love stories never suffer from believability. Like, it’s pretty easy to understand why Mo would want to be a part of the lazy rule-free chaos of Zeke’s life as opposed to hanging with his dad, playing baseball, or dealing with high school invisibility.
To a much less substantial degree, I had my own Zeke/Mo friendship when I was a 19-year-old clerk, bullshitting with him at work, downloading his encyclopedic music knowledge, and getting hotboxed in a beat-up Nissan on our lunch breaks. I tried hard to sort of stand on my tiptoes to act like his equal but the power dynamic definitely tilted more toward hero-worship. And then it just sort of faded. I got a girlfriend and a life and he kept on daydreaming and doing just enough to not get fired. (I looked him up on social recently to see what the last 15 years had been like but decided not to reach out — let the mystery be.)
My point is, these stories happen all the time. Some people grow and some don’t (or do so a little slower), and you question how much was learned from doing and not doing and how much of it was just wasting time and having fun (not that there’s anything wrong with that) as opposed to the ultra impactful sage burnout/mentee dynamic that often permeates other coming of age films. In a way, Big Time Adolescence gives off Toy Story vibes. Mo is Andy and Zeke is a blazed-out Woody trying to hold on to the good thing they’ve got going while Andy is growing up. (I’m gonna pivot to the end of the review now, but I understand if you want to soak in the imagined image of Pete Davidson in full cowboy attire yelling “reach for the sky, partner!”)
That Davidson is game to take on a role where “a Pete Davidson type” is explored and held up as something somewhat sad is a bold choice for a performer actively trying to move beyond gossip fodder and a reputation as SNL’s problem child. It’s also a welcome one. If your awareness of Davidson begins and ends with those surface descriptions then you’re missing out on someone who first showed potential for how close to the emotional third rail he was willing to get with his comedy, laying himself bare for laughs on SNL and on stage. But the show hasn’t always known how to use him, his new Netflix special comes close but doesn’t quite capture how hard he’s willing to go on stage, and past acting roles haven’t really peered in at what he can do in that space. This does, and with the semi-biographical Judd Apatow-directed (and Davidson co-written) King Of Staten Island on the horizon, Davidson seems poised to keep bolstering the definition of who he is as a performer, creating a little mystery around what he might show us next.
‘Big Time Adolescence’ is currently available to stream on Hulu.