While planning out the trippiest mushroom scene in her hallucinogenic Sundance time travel movie My Old Ass, writer-director Megan Park knew she wanted something today’s youth grew up obsessing over—something that would resonate with the Gen-Z kids now getting ready to leave the nest for college. Naturally she turned to her young star, Canadian singer and actress Maisy Stella. The answer was immediate and obvious: They should re-stage Justin Bieber’s “One Less Lonely Girl” concert performances, in which he’d hand out roses to expectant tweens on stage. But this time, it would be Stella’s character, Elliott, bestowing a flower upon her first-ever male crush as he gazes nervously into her eyes and her friends dance in the background.
My Old Ass captures the warm glow of adolescence in its smooth, unwrinkled hand. Elliott and her friends are getting ready to leave home for college when they decide to trip on mushrooms in the woods for her 18th birthday. While her BFF Ro (newcomer Kerrice Brooks) can’t stop dancing and her other bestie Ruthie (Maddie Ziegler) starts cuddling a wild rabbit, Elliott’s trip goes in a different direction. Out of nowhere, her older self appears in the form of Aubrey Plaza—whom even she is quick to point out looks nothing like her. After spending the night grilling her older self for exciting glimpses at the future and mistakes to avoid, Elliott wakes up to find “My Old Ass” saved in her phone, kicking off a strange and time-bending friendship.
The Bieber scene lands the second time Elliott trips out in the woods, this time in a desperate attempt to reach her future self after days of no contact. As revealed during a post-screening festival Q&A, Park wasn’t sure if the Biebs would approve the song’s use, but in the end, they got the go-ahead. And just like that, Sundance 2024 got its funniest scene.
The lush, sun-soaked surroundings of Elliott’s home in rural Canada, where her family farms cranberries, mirror the freedom that comes with being young and set the stage for a surprisingly gentle coming-of-age story. Elliott’s family’s future plans for the cranberry farm also underscore her mixed feelings about getting older and leaving home, when suddenly the place she thought would always be there threatens to slip through her fingers.
Don’t let the mushroom trip and time travel fool you; in spite of its high-concept hook, My Old Ass (a title I will never be able to say with a straight face) is actually surprisingly grounded. It’s a sensitive, sincere story about learning to live and love with gratitude and not fear. In her final weeks at home, Elliott’s Future Self convinces her to actually hang out with her younger brothers Max (a straight-laced golf and farming aficionado) and Spencer, whose love for actress Saoirse Ronan might actually surpass his affection for his own sister. Future Elliott also issues just one warning that her younger self inevitably fails to follow—to stay far, far away from a boy named Chad (Percy Hynes White).
Until she met Chad, Elliott thought she was only attracted to girls, but as with most Big Loves, Chad upends a lot of what she’d previously believed about herself. The reason for Future Elliott’s warning and the direction of this relationship are best left unsaid, but the chemistry Stella and White are able to build is nothing short of remarkable—the kind that makes it all too easy to see why Elliott would ignore this advice from the future and charge forward anyway.
Park’s script and direction effortlessly capture the words, energy, and body language of youth. Or rather, she makes it look easy despite the fact that many try and fail at it all the time. Stella pulls off a similar breezy authenticity as Elliott, who is charismatic and self-centered and sarcastic and utterly charming. Brooks is a magnetic scene-stealer who should absolutely book more work after this, and Hynes White plays the perfect soulful charmer. And then there’s Plaza, who expands past the sardonic persona for which she’s best known to do something a little more wistful. The bond she shares with her younger self becomes big-sisterly, if not almost maternal, showing off a side to Plaza that we’d all be lucky to see again. Park, too, is showing off her range here, given the huge departure My Old Ass takes from her far darker 2021 debut The Fallout.
In the end, that Bieber moment is a perfect microcosm for the movie that contains it—sweet, silly, and hilariously imaginative. Like the rest of the film, it feels both familiar and like something totally new. The Biebs would be very proud.