ADULT WORLD is a slight but sweet comedy about Amy, a fresh out of college poetry major, whose ambitions to be the next great literary voice of our times far exceeds her grasp. The title refers to the mom n’ pop porno shop where Amy finds employment, an undesired but necessary course of action to offset student loan bills and fund her numerous submissions to literary publications. It is a significant source of humor in the story, but the world of the film is really Amy’s. All of the characters and their actions revolve around her. This can feel a bit tedious at times as they are all more interesting than her. But this is very much the point. Amy has not really lived yet. She doesn’t have experiences the world outside of her own very egocentric view of herself as a budding poet. While she pursues her dream by attaching herself to (re: stalking) a moderately revered writer who lives in the same college town, the question of the film is really about whether Amy will wise up and see herself realistically in terms of her ability and her give and take relation (which for the most part has been strictly ‘take’) to the people around her.
Among her supporters, which does not necessarily make them fans of her work, are the similarly aged Alex who manages Adult World, a transvestite named Rubia who is portrayed with a subtle dignity, and the local writer who becomes the object of Amy’s idolizing, the fantastically named Rat Billings (John Cusack). We don’t get too much into the lives of these characters other than watching as Amy gatecrashes their respective scenes and tests their patience. In return, they offer encouragement and buffer her fall as disappointments appear.
It is a little more complex when it comes to the embittered writer, Billings. The barbs he nonchalantly throws out at Amy, who serves as his perfect unwitting punching bag, produce some very solid laughs. Though there is little explained as to why he has such a surly way about him, it isn’t necessary. Perhaps he is truly gifted and resents the contrivances he must constantly deal with in his trade. Or maybe he has been faking his own brilliance, and is in fact disappointed in his lack of true achievement. Either possibility seems plausible. Also questionable is his treatment of Amy. Does he let her in when she literally shows up on his doorstep because he sees an easy target or does he have a soft spot for her? Is he really trying to teach her some kind of experiential lesson or just an antagonistic asshole? The balance Cusack strikes that allows for these different interpretations makes for a performance that all on its own makes the movie worth a look.
Yet, so much Amy can be a bit tiresome. She is clingy, comes from a position of relative privilege, and for the most part, unchanging until ADULT WORLD approaches its conclusion. Perhaps it is easier to accept if we view her an archetypal ‘late bloomer,’ a role that is far more familiar to male characters. Taken with a grain of salt, her belligerent cluelessness is quite amusing and there are many humorous nods to the artificial clichés that abound in literary culture. In fact, Emma Roberts is at her best when fully embracing Amy’s awful.
There are few moments of dramatic conflict, which don’t really work for me. It feels as though there just isn’t much steam building behind these situations for the actors to call upon. But ADULT WORLD is none too weighty an affair. There may not be any monumental developments, and what does transpire may feel a tad predictable. But along the way some pleasant thematic ground has been tread. Many scenes speak to the idea of crossing social boundaries, as Amy learns most from those she may not have considered ever speaking to had she not ended up entering the Adult World. Another takeaway for Amy is that when life gives you lemons, you don’t necessarily have to resign yourself to making lemonade; but you can stop and appreciate what you have before you instead of casting it away in pursuit of seemingly grander things.
ADULT WORLD receives its world premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. For more details, visit the festival website.