James (Jesse Eisenberg) has just graduated from college and, desparately in need of money for grad schoool, gets a summer job at Adventureland. He's assigned to Games, where he meets Em (Kristen Stewart), a dark-haired NYU student who hasn't fully processed the death of her mother two years earlier. James, of course, promptly falls for Em, who has Hüsker Dü in her tape deck, can talk passionately about social injustic over whiskey and beer, knows how to make pot cookies and suggests reservoirs of unspoken feeling - in other words, a girl that any bookish, socially inept romantic might carry a torch for when they're James' age. Stewart and Eisenberg (essentially playing an older version of his character from The Squid and the Whale) have a believable chemistry, and Mottola - who previously excelled at eliciting strong performances from young actors in Superbad - smartly allows his film to be driven by moments like the one where James quietly studies Em's reactions as they listen to a mix tape he gave her as a gift, hoping that Lou Reed will tell her the things he can't quite articulate.
The film also avoids the standard "sensitive guy pursues unattainable girl" formula - James and Em kiss in the second reel, and both have factors that keep them not quite together. These includes James' virginity, which he insists he's keeping for the right woman (we get the feeling that he used to tell himself this, but it's become true), his flirtation with park hottie Lisa P (Margaria Levieva) - whose work shirt promises "RIDES" in contrast to Em's "GAMES" - and, especially, Em's secret affair with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), an older, married park mechanic. In a more generic version of Adventureland, Connell would be the villain, but Mottola makes the character more complex - he's an asshole who uses his charisma and his (total bullshit) story about having once toured with Lou Reed to sleep with younger girls, but he never antagonizes James and even seems to be encouraging his relationship with Em, and we gradually notice the character's total self-loathing. With Reynolds in the role, it's like the sad reality of Van Wilder, and it's to his credit that he seems to get the joke.
Mottola extends this same generosity to all his characters - even Lisa P grows beyond a slut caricature to reveal surprising sensitivity. The film's structure is loose enough to allow effectively understated moments like the one where we realize James' hyperintellectual friend Joel (Martin Starr) is carrying his own torch for Em. And then there's Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), who own the park and fell for one another through their shared dream - Wiig's offhanded delivery of the line "This is how we met" when Hader shows off his carny skills is priceless, and a scene involving a baseball bat made me laugh harder than anything so far this year except for Observe and Report (it's shaping up to be a good year for comedies). Even Frigo (Matt Bush), James' childhood bully, is given shades of depth beyond groin-punching jokes. And the subtle touch extends to the film's cinematography - utilizing a great deal of low-key and often solely available light, it not only makes for a great contrast between the neon-colored days at the park and the dimly lit nights spent hanging out in the middle of nowhere, but it gives the whole film an immediacy that takes you back to your own formative years. Adventureland sidesteps sentimentality completely and never stops to wax nostalgic about the best years of our lives; it earns its laughter and its romantic moments, and does so beautifully.