sundance 2019

Sundance Asks: Could Pete Davidson Be a Movie Star?

Big Time Adolescence. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Every year the Sundance Film Festival mints a handful of new stars, and the 2019 edition gave us a small fortune. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell showed a slightly more serious side of Awkwafina, the wrestling dramedy Fighting With My Family let Florence Pugh prove she could handle a role worlds away from Lady Macbeth, and the lush coming-of-age tale The Souvenir introduced the world to Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda. But the performance that Sundance couldn’t stop talking about was from a guy everybody already knew, even if they weren’t quite sure beforehand whether he could really act. It came from Pete Davidson, who maybe, just maybe, showed that he could become the next SNL star to make the leap to big-screen stardom.

Davidson appears in the coming-of-age comedy Big Time Adolescence — if you’re my brain, you won’t be able to stop calling it Big Adolescence Energy — as Zeke, the deadbeat 23-year-old BFF of high schooler Mo (American Vandal’s Griffin Gluck). Zeke dated Mo’s older sister when Mo was a preteen, and after the breakup, they became constant companions. It’s a symbiotic relationship: Zeke gives the square Mo a chance to feel like an adult by drinking and smoking and getting tattoos; Mo gives Zeke the chance to feel like he’s cool, even though he lives in his dead grandma’s apartment and works in an appliance store.

Once Zeke talks Mo into selling some pot at a high-school party, you think you’ll know where Big Time Adolescence is going, and you’ll be right. (The movie even gives us a “You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation” opening, a device also employed by films as disparate as The Report and Paradise Hills.) There’s much drunken debauchery, a scene where Zeke gets Mo high at an inappropriate time, and female love interest only a few steps removed from a Natalie Walker character. In other words, it’s a lot you’ve seen before, but Sundance seemed to agree that Davidson’s the reason to see it all again, with reviewers coming out of the film praising his “easy magnetism,” “fine comic timing,” and “undercurrent of sadness.”

If they sound a little bit surprised, it’s because Davidson’s previous opportunities haven’t called for much stretching. On SNL, he’s either being himself on “Weekend Update,” or playing the straight man to someone else’s big character. In last year’s Set It Up, he played Glen Powell’s gay roommate as “Pete Davidson, but if he let a guy kiss him on the cheek once.” Perhaps sensing this, BTA director Jason Orley is smart enough to keep Zeke in Davidson’s wheelhouse: He’s a character defined by unflappable optimism, which lets Davidson stay in his familiar affable-shrug mode. But his panda-bear-on-ketamine face holds the big screen well, which is not something you can say of a lot of TV comedians. And in the darker moments, he’s able to subtly bring out Zeke’s scuzzier aspects, while still displaying the charisma that makes it clear why Mo sticks around. In one scene, Zeke teaches Mo how to crouch low when he’s playing baseball, shrinking the strike zone so that he walks every time. That’s how previous Davidson roles have felt to me, like he was so afraid of giving a bad performance that he gave no performance at all. Here, for the first time, it feels like he’s actually starting to swing.

Watching the movie, I was reminded of the early roles of Adam Sandler, which let him take baby steps out of his comfort zone while mostly doing the things that made him popular on SNL. I still noticed Orley cutting around Davidson in the big emotional climax, and there may be a certain Kuleshov effect at work in the way his co-stars play off him. But like The Favourite did for Joe Alwyn, a man whose dating life also gave him a public profile that far outstripped his own work, I’ve seen flashes of how Davidson’s talents can be transformed into an actual star image. A few days after BTA’s Sundance premiere, it was reported that Judd Apatow would be partnering with the comedian for a semi-autobiographical movie set in Staten Island. A week ago, I think I would have been worried that Davidson wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I’m not now.

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Could Pete Davidson Maybe, Just Maybe, Be a Movie Star?