Though the world of a great movie may feel hermetically sealed while you watch it, all sorts of factors outside of it have decided the manner in which you get to experience it. I’ve made the argument before that the 2008 financial collapse has infiltrated the content of films, yet it probably exerted an even greater influence by limiting our access to a whole world of independently created cinema.
Back in 2009, a small dramedy by Craig Johnson called “True Adolescents” played the SXSW Film Festival. It was well-received and went on to play some smaller local festivals, but it sat around for three years waiting for theatrical distribution. Before the economic malaise (or even now in our platform-agnostic present day), this is the kind of film that would be a no-brainer for a company like Fox Searchlight to pick up. Due to the unfortunate timing of its release, however, it wound up getting a minuscule release thanks to Cinedigm.
Perhaps with “The Skeleton Twins,” Johnson’s second feature which is getting a much wider rollout courtesy of Roadside Attractions, people will begin to discover the joy of which they were robbed years ago. While the production is small-scale, the film pays off big with its richly observed script and properly defined characters.
The man-child is getting a little tired thanks to brute repetition by Seth Rogen and friends, but it feels good as new in “True Adolescents” thanks to a very authentic incarnation by Mark Duplass. His Sam has clearly blown past the twentysomething mark and is well into his thirties, hapless and essentially hopeless.
Hoping for some easy sympathy, he goes to crash with his aunt (played by a pre-Oscar win Melissa Leo) and winds up being forced to work for her charity. Sam gets the distinct pleasure of taking his teenage cousin Oliver and his friend Jake on a camping trip. I’m not too far removed from that adolescent mindset to know that it takes a special kind of person to handle boys of that age; suffice to say, Sam lacks the requisite saintliness.
As with any narrative centering around a journey in the great outdoors, an inner journey takes place in the characters. But that’s pretty much where “True Adolescents” stops falling in line with what you expect it to do. Writer/director Craig Johnson provides a surprising amount of depth within the familiar framework, opting to explore deeper into the complex characters at every turn where melodrama or clichés would be easier. It’s a real treat to watch him embrace the true in the title of his film rather than the latter word.