Escape to Where We Escaped From

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New York City lives in the background of Greg Mottola’s Adventureland like a Sugar Candy Mountain that will make all the tortures of a suburban, post-collegiate summer worth enduring.

Yet, despite the freedom that looms 327 miles east of the characters’ hometown of Pittsburgh, Mottola cannot hide the fact that the film is, in many ways, a love letter to the very kind of place that so many young people spend so many years trying to escape. Often, it fits into the same realm of sometimes-everything-crazy-and-life-changing-that-happens-t0-you-happens-when-you-go-back-to-the-town-you’re-from that is inhabited by The Graduate and Garden State, but more than either of those films, Adventureland finds a charm in those moments when we feel stuck yet also, deep down, content.

What is it about the land of our youths that so often ends up drawing us back for for nostalgia-fueled artistic inspiration? For my money, there are a few things that drive artists to make the kind of hometown homage we have in Adventureland.  There is, of course, the occasional beauty of small-town dive bars and realness of Middle America, both of which have been touted in modern art, whether ironically or quite sincerely. But the most honest reason I can think of for this kind of revisiting is quite simple: these are the places we know better than any other. I spent eighteen years in Watertown, Connecticut, a length of time I can’t really imagine ever again spending in one place, and I know the ins and outs of that town far better than I ever could the city I moved to afterward. For many artists, I believe it is this sense of familiarity that makes the hometown legend one of the most appealing tales to spin. It is also what often makes the tales so appealing to the audience.

If the majority of Mottola’s film, with the same characters, had taken place in New York (obviously allowing forvast changes to the narrative), I don’t think there is any way it would have been such an enjoyable experience. To try to learn the true nature of a place as an adult is as difficult as trying to learn how to swim after adolescence. We are no longer as receptive to the kinds of raw data that a place has to offer: we cannot absorb all of a city’s signifiers as adults, because we already have a deep psychological connection to at least one other place, in addition to a prematurely formed idea about any place to which we move. But those hometowns, Mottola’s Pittsburgh, my Watertown, came to us at a time when we were more spongy than we will ever be. The dialects, the geography, the hierarchies, the infinite number of quirks and mysteries that reside in those places that reared us during those years–they are impossible to shake and they influence the way we tell stories more than we are likely to imagine. Luckily, for Mottola and for us, that unshakability often comes out in an honest and funny portrayal of the places that we always call “back home”.

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