Richard Linklater is back with a nostalgic, uplifting film telling the story of Jake’s (Blake Jenner) first weekend at collage in ’80s America.
As Jake, a hotshot high school pitcher, moves into his new abode in the baseball household at the fictional Southeast Texas State college, he quickly learns his place in this testosterone overloaded group of young men. He’s immediately warned by McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) that he doesn’t like pitchers. As Jake wanders further through the house he meets the rest of his team mates, notably smart guy and ladies’ man Finnegan (Glen Powell) who takes Jake under his wing, stoner Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), the intense and borderline psychotic, Jay (Juston Street), Roper (Ryan Guzman), Dale (J. Quentin Johnson) and fellow freshmen Beuter (Will Brittain) and Plummer (Temple Baker), the former being Jake’s roommate.
The film takes place over the first weekend of college, before classes start and we’re given timely reminders as the clock ticks down to Monday morning. First thing’s first for Jake and his teammates. Beer. Well, beer via checking out the new girls on campus. The gang head to the local watering hole where they meet fellow team members Nesbit (Austin Amelio) and Brumley (Tanner Kalina), who is also a freshman. Jake’s a cool guy, clearly not fazed by the prospect of being a part of this alpha male saturated group. Brumley however is less cool and comes up with some classic cringe worthy lines such as “Cheers for the beers!” and “Full throttle to the bottle!”. We’ve all known that guy.
Back at the house, the coach sets down two ground rules for the guys. No alcohol and no girls upstarts. Predictably, both are broken shortly after, as the guys host their first party of the year. There’s no real narrative to this film. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s just a bunch of guys getting hanging out, getting drunk and being stupid over a weekend. I’m aware that sounds unbearable but it’s not. Linklater manages to instil a great amount of charm and warmth into these ‘ladish’ characters and they’re all incredibly likeable in their own way. It’s a vast contrast to the horrendous lad-culture of today. Perhaps the only exception is Jay who’s an obnoxious, aggressive man with a chip on his shoulder, a point to prove and all round more hassle than he’s worth. I think we’ve all known that guy too. You still can’t help but feel sorry for him though, when he gloats about all the girls he’s been ‘grinding’ with, knowing full well it’s a lie. And that’s the success of this film. The characters are so real. It feels like you’re hanging out with them. It’s so natural. So effortlessly hilarious and enjoyable.
There’s no manufactured conflict or drama. It all feels very organic and very real. It’s a true ensemble cast, every single character of the cast feels very distinct. And there’s a lot of them, so that’s a huge achievement. One of the main themes of the film is the constant battle of hierarchy within the team. There’s a fine balance to this with the older guys putting down the younger ones to stay on top, whether that be pranking them or telling elaborate lies and the younger guys battling to earn respect within the group. But there’s a respect and a camaraderie there that outweighs this and that rubs off on the audience. Even if one guy fucks up, the whole team takes the rap for it. Even if that guy is totally in the wrong. The team sticks to together and that’s why they’re the best, we’re told.
While it’s an ensemble, Jake is the main focus of the film. We see everything through his eyes. And he’s the one with the biggest story arc. He meets Beverly (Zoey Deutch) on his first day and is instantly smitten. He manages to convince his friends, amidst a great amount of teasing, that they should help him find out where she’s staying so he can stalk her, or something. She’s the only female character with any notable screen time and she’s an interesting enough character in her own right as well as being a love interest for Jake. I’ve seen the lack of female character to be a criticism of this film. But I don’t see it that way. It would be like criticising Bridesmaids for not having male characters in the cast. The whole point is it’s a group of guys. That’s the story.
Rarely do I ever come out of a film so happy. It’s such a joy to watch. Linklater manages to turn a guy’s weekend drinking bender into a charming and thoughtful film that focuses on the characters in the team and their relationships. For those of us who have experienced the first weekend at university or college it’s a real slap in the face of nostalgia. The excitement and anticipation of all the guys is rife and perfectly captures that beginning of term feeling. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just a film about drunk teenagers doing stupid things a la American Pie. It’s a lot deeper than that. It’s a film about having your future ahead of you, making the most of what you’ve got and enjoying yourself. Also, the soundtrack is pretty incredible. Leaving the theatre was very bittersweet. And that’s a compliment. It just made me want to go back and do it all again.