Paying bills — and on time, every month, without fail. Grocery shopping — for more than just Double-Stuf Oreos, dill pickles, cheap wine, two loaves of bread, and one (1) vegetable. Staying on top of your health insurance — and trying not to cry when you read the terms and conditions of your asininely expensive plan that still sees you cough up a co-pay each time you dare visit a doctor instead of slurping down your mom’s chicken soup and slathering your chest with Vicks Vaporub. Having a job, a pet, a relationship, even — and keeping them alive. These are the trappings of adulthood — “adulting,” as we millennials have deemed it in the last handful of years. In a system motivated by greed, in industrialized countries built on the backs of the disenfranchised, in an era that feels darker each day as the many-eyed monster of capitalism grows hungrier for the livelihoods of the 99 percent, adulting can be difficult. Compound the complex troubles of the likely billion young adults in the world, and it can be nearly impossible — so much so that sticking to childlike ways, blanketing your mind in a juvenile obliviousness, and living out of a shed in your parent’s backyard seems safest.
This is why we can’t exactly blame 29-year-old Anna (Doctor Who’s Jodie Whittaker) for her behavior at the start of writer-director Rachael Tunnard’s feature debut Adult Life Skills.
Anna is bumbling her way through life, failing to remember what adulthood really is. Her emotional growth stunted, her maturation come to a screeching halt, her head in the clouds and her hands slipping behind homemade sets for her short videos starring her own thumbs as space-faring existentialists who bicker about Yogi Bear’s moral identity, Anna drifts aimlessly. She has a job, but it’s as a mole-hill-counter at Wilburwood Outdoor Pursuits Center, and offers no sense of fulfillment. She has a place of her own, but it’s the little shack tucked in the garden of her mother, Marion’s (Lorraine Ashbourne), house. She has hobbies, but they aren’t ones someone nearing the Big 3-0 would — should — have.
Anna spends her days cloaked in a mix of moroseness, mourning, and mindlessness, cut off from the outside world as she grieves the death of her twin brother, Billy (Edward Hogg), who passed a year and a half prior to the start of the film. Though she masks the pain in puns and science fiction, one look inside the cluttered, visually chaotic makeshift abode she’s dubbed “Right Shed Fred” and “Shed Zeppelin” reveals that Anna is lost. Death did a number on her, and a 180 on her life.
But when Marion presents Anna with an ultimatum — move out of the shed, cut her hair she hardly brushes, and start dressing in age-appropriate clothing that isn’t perpetually crinkled — another reality-flipping turn is ahead.
Yet another comes when Anna, already frazzled by the prospect of moving out and signing a lease on her own flat (she wouldn’t know where to begin behind the stacks of nostalgic bits and bobs that line her shed and shield her from sorrow), finds herself the caretaker of a fickle boy named Clint (Ozzy Myers in his feature debut) after her co-worker Alice (Alice Lowe) insists she look after him. Like Anna, Clint is dealing with a unique type of loneliness, and works through it in similarly idiosyncratic ways. His mother is in the hospital and he doesn’t much enjoy the company of others his age; as a means of coping, he rocks a cowboy costume, toy pistol and all. More young girl than grown-up, Anna forms the kind of bond with Clint that she had with Billy when he was still alive, and, through their shared sadness, begins to find a path back to adulthood and out of the woods of grief.
Quirky flicks about male arrested development are a dime a dozen, and made actors like Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, and Seth Rogen icons amongst teenage boys and college-aged guys throughout the late-90s and early-00s. Adapted and expanded from Tunnard’s BAFTA-nominated short film “Emotional Fusebox” from 2014, Adult Life Skills is different — refreshing, even — in that it tells a woman’s story.
But unfortunately, different doesn’t always equate to higher quality.
Where the men of movies like Step Brothers and Knocked Up, Grown Ups and Jeff Who Lives At Home simply dug their heels into the ground, stuck their Cheeto dust-covered fingers in their ears, and refused to grow up because they were too childish or rambunctious or selfish to, Anna in Adult Life Skills is trapped both by innate immaturity and the trauma of losing her brother. That would make her a more relatable character, and one more interesting to watch on screen because she feels distinctly human, but Adult Life Skills places too much emphasis on all her oddities, her handmade trinkets, the videos she makes and the website she keeps them on, the conversations she has with Billy (who wears snorkeling gear — extra eccentricity) beyond the grave, her exaggerated whimsy to ever allow Anna to come across an actual person. That Adult Life Skills tends to angle Anna’s likely depression as malaise and goofy listlessness makes connecting with her harder than it should be. That Adult Life Skills attempts to ground the story in scenes, particularly when Anna speaks to Billy in moments that shimmer ever so slightly with surrealism and fantasy, that never achieve the authenticity Tunnard was hoping for makes the film feel unfocused and underdeveloped.
Whittaker turns out an expectedly endearing performance to which Adult Life Skills owes the majority of (if not all of) its charms. She makes the film worthwhile, swooping into save the scene and sew up holes in the script with humor and profanity; the heaping scoops of silliness the story requires of her; and rivers of tears that, unlike the somewhat forced pathos, ring real. Whittaker carefully — but not self-consciously — teeters along the line between comedy and tragedy, even when Adult Life Skills leans too far to one side.
The rest of the film’s roster is likable enough, with little Myers acting his pants off alongside experienced actors Eileen Davies, who plays Anna’s grandmother Jean, and and Brett Goldstein, who portrays Brendan, a gratingly awkward real estate agent who tries ardently to flirt with Anna, though she rebuffs his advances and concludes he’s probably gay. Whittaker and Myers are the shining stars here, though, undoubtedly.
Intimate and quite delightful — yet strangely distracted and try-hardy and over-the-top, too — Adult Life Skills isn’t as phenomenal as the actress who leads it or as affecting as it could have been. There’s no denying that Tunnard is talented or that there’s a beating heart to be found at the center of Adult Life Skills, but there is an argument to be had over whether the short upon which the full-length feature is based is where Anna, Billy, and Clint should have stayed. Familiar for its focus on a young person finding their way and still mostly enjoyable though too quirky for its own good, Adult Life Skills is neither a hit nor a miss — even if it’s just a film to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, to vicariously cathart while Anna learns to be a fully functioning human again, or to remember that the only true adult life skills you need are a belief in yourself and a trust in others.