‘Sacramento’ Review: Michael Cera Freaks Out About Having a Baby with Kristen Stewart in Michael Angarano’s Slight but Satisfying Road Comedy

As someone who’s old enough to have seen the likes of “Superbad” and “Youth in Revolt” when they first opened in theaters, it’s hard not to feel a little unstuck in time as I watch millennial teen icon Michael Cera make the gradual transition towards dad roles (no, the “Juno” loophole doesn’t help). I was completely unfazed by the fact that he became a father in real life, but there’s something kind of fourth-dimensional about watching an actor grow up on screen while their most famous characters stay the same age forever. It’s an uncannily vivid illustration of the vertigo we all experience as we get older — how can you be on the brink of 40 when you’re also still 18?

But some things never change, and coming of age in tandem with an actor like Cera reminds you of that too. Yes, “Superbad” is a high school movie about a pair of besties who can’t bear the thought of being apart, while Michael Angarano’s sweetly amusing “Sacramento” is a road movie about a pair of estranged old pals whose reunion is entirely fueled by adult neuroses, but the truth is these movies have more in common than the 17-year gap between them might suggest. One is a balls-out studio comedy that grossed almost $200 million, while the other is a breezy little indie that will probably never play in theaters again once its Tribeca premiere is over, but both of them are about men — or at least manboys — who become totally unmoored by a transitional moment in their lives because they don’t know how to confide in each other. And they don’t know how to confide in each other because they’ve never allowed themselves to admit that they need that kind of support. Take it from a film critic: Even gawky beta nerds get smothered by their own internalized masculinity.

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If Cera has been reckoning with that reality on screen since he was a kid, the character he plays in “Sacramento” doesn’t come to it until he’s about to have a kid of his own. Maybe that’s because Glenn didn’t learn to say “I love you” to his best friend before they went to different colleges. Or maybe he did, only to grow up, get married, and gradually forget how self-revealing it can be to let yourself be vulnerable with other men who might understand what you’re going through.

Either way, the poor guy has devolved into a nervous wreck in the days before his wife is due to give birth to their first child (Rosie is played by Kristen Stewart in a role that amounts to a glorified cameo, but she only needs a few minutes of screen time to add yet another layer to the “weren’t you just a child, yourself!?” time vortex of a movie whose entire cast has grown up before our eyes). Freaking out about becoming a father at the same time as he’s about to lose his job, Glenn can’t even look at the empty crib they’ve built in the nursery without triggering a panic attack, and his extremely pregnant wife is a little too deep into the “get this fucking baby out of me” stage of her third trimester to stomach any of his discomfort.

This might sound like the kind of part that Cera could play in his sleep, but it’s also the kind of part that he can only play so well because he’s had so much practice; as Glenn spirals out over the course of the movie, you can almost feel Cera trying to rebel against his screen persona and keep an even keel as he’s sucked into the whirlpool of his character’s anxiety. Reckoning with change is a lifelong proposition, and the fact that you’ve seen Cera do it so many times before only adds more credibility to watching him do it here.

Rickey (Angarano) is coming at a similar problem from the opposite direction. An extroverted slacker who loves talking other people through their problems (especially when it helps him to avoid confronting his own), Rickey has kept his eternal adolescence in check by shirking adult responsibilities altogether. That’s part of his charm. The girl he meets in the movie’s prologue is all too happy to share a night under the stars with him, even though she laughs off the possibility of a relationship with someone who would so obviously bail on her when things got heavy (she’s played by the always excellent Maya Erskine, who also happens to be Angarano’s wife and co-parent in real life).

When the story picks up a year later, Rickey spends most of his time in a Los Angeles psychiatric facility; his father’s recent death probably has something to do with that, but it’s also a perfect hiding place for someone who’s never wanted to live in the real world. Until, that is, Rickey is a little too extroverted in group therapy, and he’s probably excused from the program with nothing to his name but an old convertible and a sob story about wanting to spread his dad’s ashes in Sacramento. That’s enough to convince Glenn not to jump out of the car when Rickey hijacks their annual hangout into an impromptu 340-mile road trip, or as Glenn mumbles under his breath: “An unplanned, long-ass drive to a city I know nothing about and have no desire to be in.”

Is loyalty to an old friend and/or anxiety about having a kid reason enough to spend a day or two away from a wife who could go into labor at any minute? Probably not, but Glenn’s willingness to indulge in a boys trip — and Rosie’s willingness to let him — is the only pill that’s hard to swallow in Angarano and Chris Smith’s lightweight script, which deftly threads the needle between a hangout vibe and more high-key antics as it makes its way north.

The dynamic between the characters is oppressively obvious at first, as both of them do what they can to keep the other at a distance (Rickey opts for little white lies while Glenn keeps his mouth shut), but the entire movie and everyone in it eases into more affecting territory as the boys come to the mutual realization that they’re each in crisis. By the time Rickey furtively stuffs an empty can of tennis balls full of dirt so that he can “dump his father’s ashes,” the strained comic vibe of the first 20 minutes has given way to a less forced — and often very funny — series of clever sight gags and acute seriocomic gestures, some of which are even allowed to explode into genuine setpieces (I was especially fond of the psychedelic wrestling match soundtracked to a Bill Callahan song).

In fact, “Sacramento” gets better at such a steady rate that it feels as if Angarano is easing into his confidence in real time. Over the course of a second feature that’s only a hair less modest than his micro-budget debut (2017’s “Avenues”), the “Sky High” star graduates from overeager dilettante to unusually shrewd comic director, and the final act of the movie — which kicks off with a major pivot that I wouldn’t dare to reveal here, even though it deepens the story in every conceivable way — creates a sustained atmosphere of exasperated anarchy that allows Rickey and Glenn to braid together even as one of them completely unravels. Both of these boys need to man up in order to be ready for the next stage of their lives (which isn’t coming soon so much as it’s already here), but neither of them can do it without a little help from their friends.

Running eightysomething minutes with credits, “Sacramento” never aspires to be much more than an incisively rendered sketch, but its casual nature and outward lack of ambition belie how well it manages to convey the terror that change brings into our lives, the mania of trying to deny it, and the relief that comes from recognizing that someone else in your world is changing with you. Michael Cera has offered that gift to millennials for the last several decades (if only second-hand), and Angarano’s film helps to ensure that he’ll continue to do so as the kids of his generation continue to have kids of their own. That’s the thing about icons: They never really die, but it can still be pretty gratifying to watch along as they get older.

Grade: B

“Sacramento” premiered at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. Vertical Entertainment will release it later this year.

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