After having reviewed the dispiriting Tarantino/Lynch throwback The Bag Man earlier this week, I happily announce that Adult World is a return to the cinema of the 1990s as well, but a more positive reassertion of indie values. The world of Don Roos, Hal Hartley, young Kevin Smith and Allyson Anders is resurrected in this character-driven story of a young poet (Emma Roberts) with more passion than talent. Trying to find her role in a world not built for struggling poets, she latches on to a burnt-out one time poet-wunderkind (John Cusack, The Bag Man’s lead, his spark back in a role worthy of him) while finding employment at an adult dvd and sex-toy shop run by Cloris Leachman and John Cullum.
Roberts, the daughter of Eric Roberts and niece of Julia Roberts, is one of those names I’ve heard in the last couple of years without having seen her in anything. She earns her buildup in the press, fully invested in and convincing as Amy, the somewhat deluded, spoiled, innocent but relatable young artist-wannabe. I empathized with this tricky character’s plight, and found myself smiling (and wincing) throughout. Roberts doesn’t work hard to make you love her character; Amy’s romanticism of the artist’s life and her hell-bent attempts to be acknowledged as a poet with potential could have been fraught with pathos and “look at me” moments, but Roberts’ technique is so disarming and seemingly unpremeditated I don’t think I blinked when she was on-camera. Director Scott Coffey, best known as a young actor in films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Mulholland Drive, knows how to direct women; his other feature, Ellie Parker, featured an eccentrically captivating performance from Naomi Watts. Adult World is a more realized work than Parker; Coffey doesn’t exploit the material for hipster touches but lets the story reveal itself at a nice, unhurried pace. It reminds me of earlier notable films such as The Unforgettable Truth, Breaking Away, and Chasing Amy without making me wish to view them instead. I smiled throughout and worried for Amy, without feeling manipulated by the filmmakers or actress.
At one point, Cusack’s character tells Amy “there may not be a place for poetry in the world; the literal may have won out. But we press on.” Cusack could have been speaking of director Coffey, screenwriter Andy Cochran and the fully-committed cast, himself included. Indie cinema’s hairline is receding, it may be transfusion-or-revolution needing, but its heart still beats strong in charming works like Adult World. Of course, the modern world being what it is, the film made absolutely no waves in theaters upon release three weeks ago, grossing about 4,000 before disappearing. It it is still available On-Demand for half the price of a modern theater ticket, anyway. Make the investment, or remain mute as Transformers 13 mugs theatergoers this summer.