They say that directing is 90% casting. But that must mean that casting is a hefty percentage of acting too — knowing how to place yourself in roles where you have the best chance to succeed. I’m not sure that Mark Duplass is a world-class actor but he’s a genius at casting. He’s good in everything in part because he understands his strengths an actor and plays to them. His character in “True Adolescents,” Sam, isn’t that far removed from the likable, aimless early thirtysomethings he played in films like “The Puffy Chair” or “Humpday.” But Duplass is his generation’s foremost likable, aimless early thirtysomething, and it’s always fun to see him to riff on that persona.
Sam lives in Seattle and works (sort of) as a struggling musician. His scruffy, scuffling rock band has the symbolism-infused name The Effort; Sam thinks they’re right on the verge of a record deal, but his girlfriend has had enough of his failed dreams and kicks him out of their apartment. With nowhere else to turn, he moves in with his aunt Sharon (Melissa Leo), who begs him to take his teenage cousin Oliver (Bret Loehr) and Oliver’s buddy Jake (Carr Thompson) on a weekend camping trip after Oliver’s absentee father bails on his chaperoning duties. Skinny-jeans-and-Converse-wearing Sam isn’t exactly an ideal outdoorsman, but he doesn’t have much choice, and so this unlikely trio of dudes set off to explore the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
At this point in the narrative, “True Adolescents” resembles a lot of other recent indie films in the mumblecore mold of slackers and sex talk — and not just because Duplass, one of the patriarchs of the form, is on hand to deliver another solid performance. Like most mumblecore movies, the camera work is loose, the locations are real, and the stakes are very low-key. Writer/director Craig Johnson juxtaposes the boys’ childish antics — Duplass has one particularly hilarious sequence where he desperately searches for a cell phone signal in the nude — with serenely beautiful images of the verdant scenery. Standing at the edge of the ocean peering out at the water, they seem on the cusp of something life-changing, if only these boys could grow up and embrace it.
Sam, Oliver, and Jake’s aimless wandering through the woods would seem to be the perfect metaphor for the aimless, wandering qualities of these sorts of movies. But once our heroes set off on their multi-day hike, Johnson begins to throw some unexpected but very welcome twists at the usual mumblecore formula. Things, y’know, like, happen in this movie. Lives are changed. Secrets are revealed. The guys don’t really know where they’re going, but they certain find some very important things when they arrive.
Duplass’ younger co-stars aren’t always up to the dramatic and emotional challenges their roles demand, and I wonder if the film would be even more interesting if it were told from their perspective rather than Sam’s. But there’s still something refreshing about “True Adolescents.” It feels like mumblecore’s inherent immaturity finally coming of age.