Adult Life Skills was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival a few years back and is just now getting a release stateside. While at times it feels like it was ripped out of an Independent film plot and character cloning machine- when it works, it works. Ironically, the film is at its best when it’s not trying so hard to tell us what to feel or convince us of its sincerity.
Adults behaving like children is hardly a new character trope in independent film. But writer/director Rachel Tunnard actually gave Anna (Jodie Whittaker) a reason for her stunted maturity so that’s a breath of fresh air. Tunnard’s Adult Life Skills is a mixture of looking at growing up and how, when dealing with grief, we feel the need to pause our life.
Anna hasn’t pressed paused so much as chosen the freeze frame option. A young thirty-something woman who lives in her mother’s garden shed and works at a nearby youth center. Her twin brother Billy (Edward Hogg) died tragically and now Anna seems at a lost. Which as for a reason to be living in a garden shed, being emotionally distant, and being at constant odds with her mother Marion (Lorraine Ashbourne) it’s better than most excuses Hollywood offers up for adult immaturity.
Tunnard’s script moves amiably enough but it seems padded at times. Especially considering a subplot involving a young boy by the name of Clint (Ozzy Myers). Clint is an imaginative, withdrawn, and stubborn little boy. If Anna was a child, and a boy, she would be Clint, no doubt. I understand he’s meant to be a mirror image of Anna. Clint is meant to help her come to terms with her loss and the realization she has to move on.
Adult Life Skills is such a joy whenever Anna and Marion go at it it’s a crying shame whenever Clint enters the frame and stops the film almost dead. Ashbourne and Whittaker light up the screen as they trade barbs and lash out at each other. Even Anna’s grandma Jean (Eileen Davies) joins in. When the three women are on screen together the film comes alive and gives us a rare glance of a family of women working through grief by working through each other.
Marion’s demands for Anna to move out and grow up are less the typical parental annoyance at a spoiled child. Anna lost a twin but Marion lost a son. Tunnard wisely never has either woman give an inch as they each demand the other to give them space to mourn in their own way. Each one convinced that the other is going about grieving Billy’s life the wrong way.
Jean is sort of shell shocked at the whole thing. The matriarch of the family, she is the peacekeeper, the referee, and voice of reason all rolled into one. Though she is not immune to being dragged into petty arguments or needling her daughter for her own amusement.
One of my favorite moments comes shortly after Marion chastises Jean about how a sane person loads a dishwasher. Grabbing a walkie they use to communicate with Anna, Jean calls out to the other woman. “Anna, I think you should know, that despite claiming maturity, your mother just mouthed the words f**k off, to me.”
The women in Tunnard’s script are messy, vulgar messes trying their best to appear that they aren’t. Even Anna’s best friend, Fiona (Rachael Deering), seems to be struggling. Fiona is the cheerful party girl, the extrovert to Anna’s introverted kookiness. Fiona has just returned from a vacation in Thailand. On the surface, she seems fine but as the film goes on we begin to see cracks in her perfectly coiffed existence.
For a first time director, Tunnard seems to have a knack for getting the best out of her actors. Whittaker is funny and terse as she plays a character you both want to hug and strangle at times. Ashbourne and Davies are so good we wish the script had more of them and less of Clint.
Whittaker’s Anna would be, in a movie written and directed by men, something akin to a “manic pixie dream girl”. But here her kookiness and oddball eccentricities are less meant to endear us and more make her more human. She dresses in clothing that is comfortable and if she can’t get to the bathroom won’t hesitate to go outside. Women like Anna tend to exist on the peripheral of movies. Tunnard puts her front and center and Whittaker is more than up to the task.
Which is why I cringed whenever Clint would barge in and steal the scene. As much as I was annoyed by Clint, I recognize, to some extent, my annoyance is intentional. Anna is annoyed by him too. People similar to us are often the ones we find the most insufferable. Anna’s refusal to let Clint in is symptomatic of how she refuses to let anyone else in.
The camerawork by Bet Rourich is functional and at times evocative. But Tunnard feels the need to saturate Adult Life Skills with Micah P. Hinson’s, on the nose, score. Rourich’s camera work which is at times austere and surreal is at odds with Hinson’s soft rock ballads. Hinson’s music telegraphs the emotions we’re supposed to be feeling. The result is irritating and frustrating.
Adult Life Skills is a sincere and earnest attempt to look at loss and women lost in the transition stages of life. At times the character’s words are lacerating as they strike at the heart of another character’s vulnerability. I loved how Tunnard understood the little things most films ignore.
Moments like when Marion tosses the snails out of her garden. Jean looks on confused until Marion informs her she’s “accelerating the cycle of life”. Jean shakes her head. “You can’t just move them nearby. They have a strong homing instinct. They’ll come back. I saw it on Baywatch.” “Springwatch, mother,” Marion replies. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had a conversation similar to this with their own parents. More than likely their parents responded much the same way as Jean, “Whatever.”
As debuts go, Adult Life Skills is clunky but shows promise. Tunnard has a good ear for dialogue. Even more impressive she has an ear for knowing which character should say which line. A skill that is not necessarily guaranteed among most screenwriters. Still, she understands how to end a film. It’s hard to be angry when Whitesnake is the band playing over the closing fade to credits.