Adult World begins with a suicide attempt: A young girl puts her head in an oven while a poster of Sylvia Plath stares into the distance, unmoved. But it takes too long for the oven to heat up or whatever, so the girl tries something even more dramatic: She ties a plastic bag around her head and lies down on her mattress to suffocate. The rest of the movie attempts to explain why anyone should care. It succeeds, sort of.
The bag(headed) lady in the opening scene is Amy (Emma Roberts), a cute, aspiring writer with a voice as soothing as a beagle's howl. Amy is intent on a becoming a poet — or, more accurately, she's intent on becoming a famous literary wunderkind like Rimbaud or Kitty Pryde. After graduating from college, Amy spends her days at her parents' house, mailing her poems to magazines and ignoring her mounting student loans until her mom and dad demand that she get a job. Amy finds work at a quaint, old-fashioned, family-run dirty bookstore, where she meets a sly, cute boy (Evan Peters) who takes a shine to her. But she doesn't really notice him at first, because she's trying to ingratiate herself with aging poet and local crank Rat Billings (John Cusack).
It's an unusual coming-of-age setup, part Adventureland and part Inside Llewyn Davis. But it's both easier and harder to take than either of those films. Like Llewyn Davis himself, Amy is shrill, pushy, haughty, and self-centered. Unlike Davis, though, she's terrible at her craft; for someone who wants to earn her living with words, she's almost ostentatiously illiterate. When she's asked why she wants to be a poet, she says things like "I feel a lot ... I wanna speak for the people who suffer." Roberts should not be blamed for her character's unpleasantness, though; she should be celebrated for embodying it so completely. Unless you're a professor or a parent, you probably haven't spent this much time with such complete, exasperating post-adolescent brattiness in quite a while.
Roberts' Amy is the kind of person whose sense of self-worth is unearned and overblown. As Billings, Cusack makes an ideal balloon-popper, a gravelly voiced troll who listens to people only to mock them and scurries around town like a roach seeking the cover of darkness. Intelligent antisocial behavior like Cusack's seldom goes unpunished for as long as it does here: His clashes with Roberts are the main reasons to keep watching.
Despite these two performances, Adult World is not entirely put together. However, in it are more smarts and recognizable moments from a real person's lived experiences than there are in most late-winter studio films. Syracuse's alleys and clinging-to-life neighborhoods provide mood and texture, and a throwaway Mark Leyner joke that falls flat is still a Mark Leyner joke.
Adult World must be doing something right, too, because no matter how annoying Amy is, it's still sad when she gets her well-deserved comeuppance.
Opens Friday, March 7th
Ridgeway Cinema Grill