Losing someone tears a hole in our lives; its edges ragged and alive with raw nerves that twitch in agony over memories major and minor. And yet life goes on. Days drag on. Weeks click by in callous ignorance to a world shattered by grief. And in this tear of time and pain, we are left. This fragile and messy space is where the English dramedy Adult Life Skills takes place. Doctor Who’s Jodie Whittaker stars as Anna, a grieving woman on the brink of her 30th birthday who’s finding it very hard to grow up.
Editor turned writer/director Rachel Tunnard makes her feature debut with Adult Life Skills, which begins with Anna living in her mother’s garden shed. There, she hides from the world that spins on, indifferent to her and her mourning. There, she makes videos, starring her two thumbs as bickering astronauts on a perilous space odyssey. There, she clings to the scraps of her life from before the devastating death of her twin brother. But Anna’s friends and family are not content to let her burrow into reclusion and fantasy. And as they pry her from the comforts of her shed, she befriends a cowboy-obsessed little boy called Clint (Ozzy Myers), who provides an unexpected path into healing.
The grief angle gives new life to an arguably exhausted arrested-development premise. This isn’t a gleeful comedy, bursting with sophomoric jokes born from a pack of manchildren running amuck. Instead, Tunnard gives us something more solemn and fittingly rough around the edges. Anna’s reluctance to leave her reckless youth behind isn’t about fear of the future, as much as it is about a fear of letting go of the one person she felt truly understood her. But a lively streak of quirky fun—soggy bras, murder mystery parties for jaded kids, and an awkward but adorable romance—keep things from getting too bleak. Whitaker is charming throughout, bringing a wide-eyed sincerity and childish innocence, with a glinting edge of sadness.
Regrettably, Anna’s world is cluttered by such a motley support system of family, friends, and co-workers that makes her journey to self-discovery woefully uneven. The supporting cast offers few performers who match Whitaker for screen presence, and several struggle with the script that’s overcrowded for such a small story. Tunnard’s oversized cast of characters does allow for some delightful scenes, like when Anna’s boss (Bandersnatch’s Alice Lowe) and childhood BFF (newcomer Rachael Deering) have a heated exchange about responsibility, lamination machines, and Robert Pattison. However, having a nagging mother and nagging grandmother and a nagging bestie cripples the movie’s momentum, and means there’s little time to develop Anna’s loved ones much beyond rough sketches and well-meaning outbursts. But in a film about a woman who struggles to sort out her priorities and revels in DIY fun, there is a sort of homespun charm to such a clunky construction.
Adult Life Skills is a wobbly but winsome film about pain and the friends who pull us through kicking and screaming. Whitaker carries a quiet desperation that binds us to Anna even through her most embarrassing moments. Little Ozzy Myers proves her perfect scene partner, delivering the dialogue of a heartbroken kid with an authentic blend of frustration and curiosity. In a movie flecked with bright spots, these two’s scenes together are a strange and special pleasure that scratches at the seeming impossibility of healing and love in a world ravaged by grief. In short, Tunnard’s first film gives audiences something warm, weird, wonky, and a bit of wonderful.
Adult Life Skills is now in theaters and On Demand.
Header Image Source: Screen Media Films