Adult World (2013)
Words by Danni Turner

Adult World (2013)

Hidden gem Adult World is a coming-of-age story for the previously gifted, Rory Gilmore sympathisers amongst us: the kids or teens that excelled at school, fought their way into higher education, and grew up thinking they’d become famous only to realise getting discovered is hard, and life in your twenties is even harder.

Directed by Scott Coffey, Adult World follows recent college graduate Amy (Emma Roberts) who, despite believing she’s the next Sylvia Plath, is struggling to gain recognition as a poet. Once at the top of her class, and praised by everyone around her, Amy’s ego is dangerously big and costs her parents a lot of money. Though they adore her, they can’t keep subsidising her repeatedly rejected writing submissions. It’s time, they tell her, that she finds employment and enters the adult world.

Applying to various odd jobs, Amy is swiftly rejected from them all before stumbling upon a “Help Wanted” ad in a shop window. Being the romantic that she is, Amy takes this as a sign from the universe, however, when she enters to apply, is horrified to discover it’s a porn shop (ironically named Adult World). Middle-class and well-educated, Amy believes she’s above working there,  but needing money for her car and taking solace in the fact “[J.D.] Salinger worked at a meat processing plant,” she takes the job, and meets several people who will change her life. These are trans woman Rubia (Armando Riesco) who teaches the uptight Amy to relax and have fun, and kind and sensitive Alex (Evan Peters) who puts up with Amy’s drama because he has a crush on her.

Another very important figure in Amy’s life is the washed-up local poet Rat Billings (John Cusack). Alongside her job at Adult World, Amy works as a glorified cleaner for Rat, though she prefers to  believe — and tell everyone — that she’s his protégé. Rat doesn’t believe in much, and he certainly doesn’t care for fame. He lives in a humble house in a downtrodden neighbourhood and has a spot teaching at the local college. Rat Billings is Charles Bukowski without the mystique. In fact, Rat Billings isn’t Rat Billings at all, but sad old Richard Simmons: his name being a nom de plume.

Rat has a love-hate relationship with Amy in that he admires her tenacity but dislikes her cringy  poetry and self-conceitedness. Though he jokes that she is “free of all knowledge,” it’s not that  Rat thinks Amy is talentless per se, but that she hasn’t had enough life experience to be one of  the greats and her sense of entitlement is toxic. Given this, Rat makes it his mission to humble the poor girl by putting Amy’s writing in his new book: Shit Poems, an Anthology of Bad Verse. A book which he gifts her on her birthday, no less.

This pushes Amy over the edge, and, after abusing Rat both physically and verbally, she goes  home and contemplates a deeply poetic death: suffocation by an Adult World carrier bag. Seeing red, but without her rose-tinted goggles, Amy continues her feud with Rat until she finds the humour in his lessons, and in the movie’s final act, she finally gets the character development she deserves.

Here, before returning Rat’s favour and putting him in his place, Amy gets a second reality check  from Alex who, fortunately for her, is much more sympathetic. The most grounded character in  Adult World, Alex encourages Amy to look within and make some overdue discoveries: she is  not above her colleagues at Adult World, she is not the only talented 20-something, and she  depends too much on external validation. Amy is told the first plainly and discovers the second  for herself when she realises Alex, whom she likes but looks down upon, is an incredible artist.  Shocked that Alex doesn’t show off his work, Amy makes the third discovery when he asks “Don’t you have anything that you just wrote for yourself, that you didn’t want to show anybody?” and she quietly replies, “No, not really.”

With these new insights, and with Rubia, Alex, and her family to support her, Amy turns her life  around. She lets her guard down, finds love, loses her sense of entitlement, regains her passion for writing, and emerges a better (but not perfect!) person and poet.

Deeming Amy’s enlightenment a satisfying ending — even more so than the epilogue where she  becomes a published poet — you can imagine my surprise when, after watching the movie, I read people hated it, and, more commonly, hated Amy. Had they not seen what I’d seen? Do female characters have to be fully likable to be good? And what does it say about me that I relate to Amy?

Maybe it says I’m a bitch who needs a fat slice of humble pie, or maybe it says that, like Amy, I’m  a 20-something creative struggling to overcome hustle culture, precarious work, and a capitalistic society that wants me to compete, wants me to be “special.” Either way, I’m happy she exists. Cinema needs more flawed women like Amy and more empathetic (male) directors, like Coffey, who want to do justice by them and get some well-meaning laughs in the process.