It takes some time to fall in love with 18-year-old Elliott (Maisy Stella) in “My Old Ass.” She’s young and self-involved, so focused on heading off to college in the big city that she’s kind of a jerk to everyone around her (especially her small-town cranberry-farming family). Maybe young adult audiences won’t think so. Canadian actor-turned-auteur Megan Park’s sweetly insightful coming-of-age comedy is intended for them — whereas adults might not have so much patience for the way Stella’s impulsive character takes for granted what are arguably her best years.
Don’t worry, the movie is great, and Elliott eventually grows on you. Besides, her initially off-putting persona is kind of the point of Park’s older-and-wiser second feature, which follows the director’s terrific, SXSW-winning debut “The Fallout.” Park plays a magic trick early in the film: Elliott and her besties (Maddie Ziegler and Kerrice Brooks) take the boat to an island in the middle of the lake to camp out and do shrooms. While high, Elliott is visited by her 39-year-old self (Aubrey Plaza), whom she peppers with insults, calling her “middle-aged” and commenting on how little they look alike.
For a time, Plaza’s whole shtick was playing annoyed-looking young women, but as the comic actor has matured, so have her performances. As the title character, she’s not onscreen for long here, but we believe the nearly-40 Elliott’s weariness. She feels nostalgic around her younger self, deflecting questions about how her life has gone (this isn’t exactly a time-travel movie, but “we don’t know how this works,” she says, and neither party wants to create a paradox). Still, teenage Elliott’s desperate for pointers.
“Can you avoid anyone named Chat?” Plaza’s character says cryptically. Elliott is hallucinating, so there’s a good chance that all of this is in her head. When she wakes up the next morning, Elliott doesn’t know what to think. But then she meets a disarmingly charming stranger (Percy Hynes White) who’s named … you guessed it, Chad. Suddenly desperate for advice, Elliott finds her future number stored in her phone and reaches out, striking up a supernatural (yet refreshingly intuitive) dialogue with her old-ass self.
Deflecting questions about that ominous warning, older Elliott hits her with lots of useful insights: Respect your parents. Spend some quality time with your brothers. Slow down and be grateful for each moment (even the bumpy ones), because the passage of time speeds up before you know it. These tips are better than anything a traditional elder (that is, someone other than herself) could give, since older Elliott can remember the mistakes she made at that age and tailor her feedback accordingly.
Which brings us back to Chad. Tall and lanky, with long hair and an endearingly dorky air about him, this guy doesn’t exactly fit the profile of someone who will hurt her. But the back-and-forth between young and old Elliott really is happening, and while she’s clearly a rebel, Elliott has every reason to trust her older self’s “avoid Chad” directive. Add to that the fact she identifies as gay and has been sneaking around with a local bartender (Alexandra River). Still, tell a teenager not to do something, and there’s a good chance they’ll defy you — a tendency that drives much of the film’s tension.
Fittingly enough, “My Old Ass” could be seen as Park circling back to make a YA film for an imaginary version of herself, including a Justin Bieber cover sure to delight LGBT Beliebers. To its credit, this future classic is honest about adolescent desire, self-questioning sexual identity issues and all kinds of other behavior that sends worried moms and dads into meltdown mode. (The MPA’s film-ratings system was designed with parents in mind, and this film — which may be obliged to change or censor its title down the road — crosses so many of the org’s guidelines.)
Remember, Park got her start on ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” which spoke directly to adolescent viewers about touchy subjects like teen pregnancy. Series creator Brenda Hampton clearly had an impact on Park, whose respectfully boundary-crossing YA comedy is a better teaching tool than most PG-13 films — not so much despite but because of its casual profanity, drug use and wildly irresponsible mishandling of a motorboat (in a way that kills teens every year). Young people don’t think like that, acting instead like they’re immortal. If anything, the movie could have gone farther.
Closer in age to Plaza’s character, Park uses “My Old Ass” as a delivery device for insights that have come to her through life experience. It’s a testament to her writing talent that the script is funny first, poignant second and only the slightest bit patronizing. Early on, Elliott announces that she can’t wait for her life to begin when she gets to Toronto (Park shows her childhood pals flinching when they hear that, as they have no plans of leaving). Elliott’s desperate to leave the cranberry business, but Park captures something else: namely, the nostalgia of those last lazy days at home, surrounded by family and friends.
The landscapes alone are enough to make you cry. Odds are good you’ll tear up eventually. It’s that kind of movie, with a twist that redefines which genre audiences had been watching all along. “This isn’t the last time you get exactly what you want and realize it isn’t what you wanted,” Plaza explains at one point. The elder Elliott may have spent more time on this earth, but she doesn’t know everything, which is perhaps the best surprise of Park’s film: We oldsters have something to learn from the younger generation as well.