What better time for Greg Mottola to follow up Superbad with a movie in which tough times force a recent college grad to toil away the summer at a fading amusement park rather than enjoying a celebratory European vacation? This movie, quietly funny and unexpectedly endearing, paints the park as both a closed habitat in which a loner has no choice but to fall in love with the only smart girl and a peculiar economic prison.

Adventureland is a coming of age story and a mid-’80s time capsule, both easy sells for a wistful and nostalgic audience. It’s also sharp and a bit prickly. Following James (Jesse Eisenberg), a more honest and openly naïve version of the character Eisenberg played in The Squid and the Whale, Mottola (who also wrote) captures the bitterness and uncertainty of early love as the emotion is tainted not only by self-doubt, but by family malaise and the deep unease that sets in when hopes and expectations start to go sour.

That sounds way too serious. The story is also very funny. Not like Superbad‘s dick drawings and ‘These Eyes’ interlude, but like the joke you can’t resist making about the poor dorky kid on an awkward date at the next table.

Coincidentally, as in his last movie, Mottola has built the story around a virgin. But James got through college without getting laid, and he’s almost locked into life as they guy who falls easily into one unrequited love after another. That’s part of the reason this movie is more quiet than Mottola’s last, and more pensive.

Running rigged games at the Adventureland park, the inexperienced kid faces weirdo employees and knuckle-dragging townie patrons. The park is both hellhole and wonderland, where you might smoke up while ogling the hottest employee (who wears a shirt that says ‘rides’), and earn an unsustainable living along the way. The earnest James finds a kindred spirit in intellectual dork Joel (the amazing Martin Starr) and immediately falls for winsome, sad-eyed Em (Kristen Stewart).

Around them, the rogues’ gallery of half-carnies is impressive: persistently adolescent maintenance guy Mike (Ryan Reynolds), armed with suspicious stories about his music career; ball-punching Frigo (Matt Bush), an aggressively loyal friend; and the exceptionally hot Lisa P (Russian Margarita Levieva, hopefully not this year’s Shannon Elizabeth).

Mottola’s great talent is his ability to maintain a dominant storyline without neglecting the supporting cast. The fitful courtship between James and Em is almost episodic. This is a summer movie that skips over stretches of hot, humid days where little happens, and it’s young love, so it ebbs and flows as Em is sometimes more at ease with each James, sometimes less.

In the meantime, not only is Em made to feel as real as James — rare enough — but everyone else is painted with funny hopes and disappointments, ups and downs. As the movie weaves all the ensemble stories together, it feels like a full summer, a real thing. It’s like a memory.

Mottola made pop songs work in Superbad, but this time he elevates his DJ game to Dazed and Confused levels. Some of that is my own bias, because when a movie opens and closes with Replacements songs and also features Husker Du, Big Star and reclaims Lou Reed’s ‘Satellite of Love’, I get a little weak-kneed. Plus, scoring a short chase scene with Judas Priest’s ‘Breakin’ the Law’ works even better than ‘Panama’ scoring a raging police car.

Stories of two kids in love never get old, but the telling often does. Adventureland feels like it’s living these moments again, not trying to recreate them from afar, and that makes all the difference.

8.1 out of 10