Director : Ryan Gielen
Screenplay : Ryan Gielen
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Rob Bradford (Ben), Blake Merriman (Andy), Nick Vergara (Mattie), Mike Pennacchio (Nickie), Tom Cryan (Tom), Josh Adam Davis (Josh), Brian W. Seibert (Brian), Stephanie Lynn (Annie), Laurel Reese (Megs), Max Lodge (Stuart), Rachel Kiri Walker (Rachel), Nadeya Ward (Beth-Anne), Katy Wright-Mead (Chelsea), Meghan Miller (Melissa), Zak Williams (Mike “The Resonator” Resniski)
Ryan Gielen’s independently produced feature debut The Graduates fits quite neatly into the animal comedy genre--what with its focus on teenagers singled-mindedly pursuing sex, booze, and mayhem--yet at the same time it doesn’t quite fit because Gielen has genuine affection for his characters and sees beyond their surface party ethos to the deeper spaces within. The film isn’t always successful in elucidating its basic tension between the characters’ animal desires and their more sensitive inner lives, but at least Gielen recognizes that teenagers are complex, frequently misunderstood beings.
The film’s basic premise revolves around “Senior Week,” which is apparently a time-honored Maryland tradition in which graduating high school seniors pile into cars and head out to Ocean City for several days of bedlam (the primary goals being sex, sex, and more sex). The antics of Senior Week are based on Baltimore-native Gielen’s own experiences, but they work in a broader thematic context to suggest that strange gray zone between adolescence and adulthood that high-school graduation entails. Granted, in today’s society adolescence is expanding in leaps and bounds, to the point that acting like a drunken frat boy well into your late twenties does not necessarily constitute social retardation, but Gielen makes the story work in his characters’ favor, suggesting a time-honored rite-of-passage sensibility that imbues the week’s ridiculousness with a deeper sense of meaning.
Like many a high school comedy, The Graduates revolves around a group of friends who in real life would most likely not be friends, but function dramatically and comically as a cross-section of the American teenage experience. The main character is Ben (Rob Bradford), a relatively sensitive guy whose 25-year-old brother Josh (Josh Davis) represents the pinnacle of arrested development in his willingness to drive Ben and his friends to Ocean City and partake of Senior Week festivities even though his expiration date has long since passed. Ben’s friends include Andy (Blake Merriman), who is the most perceptive and honest of the group to a fault (he actually has the audacity at one point to say, “Sex isn’t everything”); Mattie (Nick Vergara), who seems at all times to be at one remove from whatever is going on; and Nickie (Mike Pennacchio), a rich kid with a Napoleon complex and a chip on his shoulder who is always looking for a brawl and is thus in constant danger of stumbling into his own personal Waterloo.
As the story progresses, each of these characters moves along his own story arc, with the preordained conclusion that some kind of growth will be achieved. The fact that said “growth” takes place during a week of arguably infantile behavior is a dramatic necessity, and Gielen comes close to making it ring true even as he works within strictly demarcated genre boundaries. Most recognizable is Ben’s dilemma: He is infatuated with Annie (Stephanie Lynn), a sultry and unstable redhead with a college-freshman boyfriend and a frighteningly developed sense of how to manipulate guys, which naturally blinds him to his best friend Megs (Laurel Reese), who is arguably prettier than Annie and infinitely more available. But, because Ben views her as a friend (or even a sister, as he puts it at one point), she has long since ceased to be a sexual object in his eyes, even though she desperately (and sometimes pathetically) tries to make him see differently.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is, but Gielen works the material with just enough good humor and sensitivity to make it work. At times the film feels like the low-budget endeavor that it is (the party scenes, in particular, feel somewhat skimpy when they should be packed), but the focus on the characters and the strong performances by the unknown leads, as well as a first-rate soundtrack featuring close to two dozen indie rock bands, draw us in enough to help smooth out the rough edges. Gielen’s focus on the nature of maturity at a crossroads in life is an interesting one, although at times it feels a bit confused. We are left wondering, for example, how we should feel about Mike Resniski (Zak Williams), an old friend of Josh’s whom he runs into in Ocean City. Mike, who was once known as “The Resonator” in high school for his partying prowess, is now a miserably married twentysomething with a baby and a mother-in-law in constant tow. Gielen overplays this character and the burden of adult responsibility he represents; yet, the film seems to be saying that we all must grow up at some point. Perhaps it is simply part of the inherent uncertainty of the struggle between the joys of carefree youth and the benefits of maturity, which Gielen nicely summarizes in the film’s final shot that brings Ben’s romantic dilemmas to a conclusion while also leaving a satisfying hint of ambiguity.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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