In his press release for The Graduates, director Ryan Gielen claims, “I made the movie for everyone who wants coming-of-age comedies to be more than just a series of empty gags.” One way to express his considerable achievement with this, his feature length debut, is to say he reached his intended goal, and kept right on going.
The Graduates tells the story of four male friends fresh out of high school and heading out to party during Senior Week in Ocean City, Maryland. It’s the perfect setup for a lot of getting drunk and carrying on and cruising for losses of virginity in all forms and in all the wrong places. But Gielen says he wanted the movie to start in familiar territory and then let the movie and characters grow.
And grow they do. The movie opens with the four pals being gathered up by an older brother as they prepare to hit the road. Jokes abound, all of them about booze and easy women and even a crude gay joke (pretty much required by the genre). Never fear though, the movie quickly leaves such clichés behind in favor of a more interesting and sophisticated look at the fears and frustrations and insecurities lurking just behind the pursuit of booze and easy women – and the motivations for telling such jokes in the first place.
There is a terrific scene during a party that neatly illustrates Gielen’s approach. The central character Ben (aptly played by Rob Bradford) is trying to dodge kisses by an overly boozed-up party girl. When she finally connects, she vomits in his mouth. His disgust would typically be the punch line in raunchier incarnations of the genre, but, here, Gielen twists the situation into a tender moment between the girl and her comforting brother. Ben’s face is a typographic map of conflicting emotions as he overhears their conversation.
The Graduates was made for a paltry $95,000 and it is a little rough around the ears because of it. The many party scenes have that impoverished quality of always being framed in tight shots and having the same six or eight people always standing in the background, but this sort of obvious shoestring resourcefulness also has its charms. And the cast is filled out by actors who look a few too many years older than their characters in the way one finds in B-movies like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
But, when the cast is as good as this, it really doesn’t matter. I was surprised by how well everyone fares actually. I’ve never seen a movie made on such a shoestring before where every actor is at least adequate and a few are downright memorable. I’d really like to single out two for special mention.
Laurel Reese is very affecting as the female lead Megs. She’s natural. The camera loves her. It’s sincerely a great little movie moment when she tries her first cigarette or when she cracks a smile after making Ben’s love interest jealous.
And Josh Adam Davis is simply a revelation as Josh, Ben’s older brother. I had that constant, nagging, “I know I’ve seen him before” feeling while watching his every move. He was reminding me of Jason Segel’s Sydney Fife from I Love You, Man and Matthew McConaughey’s David Wooderson from Dazed and Confused – in very good ways. Josh and Megs are two of the film’s most complex characters. Reese and Davis are two actors now firmly on my radar.
The marketing for The Graduates is a bit off. I was expecting something cheap and raucous like Porky’s, but instead got something classier, more like Adventureland. Gielen has a great understanding of genre and knows how to twist it and play with it and re-shape it. All the partying and drinking and trying to get laid are here as they should be in a “male coming of age sex comedy,” but they merely act as springboards, allowing the characters to take flight a bit before plunging into deeper waters.
Ultimately, what one fondly remembers after the lights come up is a collection of enjoyably distinctive characters, each finding his or her own – sometimes surprising – way to come of age.