At a glance, Adult Life Skills fits the bill of the modern romantic comedy, with a central character clinging onto childhood as the weight of adult life comes to bear on them. But the closer you look, the less it fits the bill. If you can resist the temptation to contextualize the film in the current landscape of comedies and coming of age stories (dramadies if you will), what Adult Life Skills is really about is grief. And making homemade movies with your thumbs.
Anna (Jodie Whittaker, Attack The Block) lives her life stuck in neutral. Since her twin brother passed away, she sleeps in her mother’s shed, never seems to have clean clothes, and spends her days making videos about existentialism and spacecrafts with her thumbs. Fast approaching 30, her mother (Lorraine Ashbourne, King Kong) imposes an ultimatum – she must move into an apartment by her birthday. Anna’s isolation is quickly shattered as her childhood friend (Rachel Deering) comes to visit, she becomes babysitter to Clint (Ozzy Myers), the cowboy obsessed son of a terminally ill neighbor, and she is pursued by her childhood friend Brandon (Brett Goldstein, Derek) whose romantic advances are ruined by his overwhelming awkwardness.
Based on her BAFTA nominated short film Emotional Fusebox, Adult Life Skills is Rachel Tunnard’s directorial debut, and an impressive one at that. The film plays around with rom-com convention of the manchild – or woman in this instance, but it the film isn’t really about romance. Tunnard isn’t peddling the traditional ‘romantic love can cure everything’ solution to Anna’s grief. The film provides a more nuanced, detailed depiction of support systems and the struggle to both give and accept help.
Adult Life Skills is one of the cleverest films about grief I’ve ever seen, balancing humor with profundity in a way that always feels respectful to its characters. Tunnard’s script examines different grief systems and puts them in conflict, particularly between Anna and her mother in a battle that is hysterically mediated by Anna’s grandmother (Eileen Davies, The Theory of Everything). The film creates a rich communal tapestry that Anna’s self absorption tugs and tears often with cringe inducing hilarity. Perhaps more impressive is the rich way the film externalizes the inner workings of Anna’s mind. Her thumb videos, which tell the story of two astronauts waxing poetic as they head towards the sun, provide hilarious and poetic insight into the painful and revelatory act of letting go.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Adult Life Skills works as a comedy, a coming of age story, and a tale of the consequences of grief. Director Rachel Tunnard shows surprising mastery of tone, handling weighty topics with a deft humor that manages to avoid slipping into saccharine earnestness. Jodie Whittaker is exception, delivering a performance that is deep, damaged, and honest. Adult Life Skills is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it will hopefully find an avenue to a wider audience. This is a film you should see.