As the feature debut of editor-turned-writer-director Rachel Tunnard, Adult Life Skills is an expansion of her BAFTA-nominated short Emotional Fusebox. Short expansions are a pretty common route to go down for feature debuts, and in this case, it’s a valuable upgrade for the material in question. It allows for seemingly overtly-cutesy affectations (somewhat typical of stunted-adolescent indies in the US — this film’s British) to expose some actual depths; pain made palpable thanks to the expansion in runtime and scope.
For Adult Life Skills, Tunnard retains four cast members from Emotional Fusebox, the most important being Jodie Whittaker (Attack the Block, Broadchurch, Black Mirror) as protagonist Anna, who’s adept with both registers of the film’s comedic and dramatic tones with an oft-petulant, guarded performance that’s full of nuance. Anna is approaching her 30th birthday in a state of arrested development, which, in this case, involves shacking up in her mother’s garden shed back in her rural home-town. She’ll be celebrating (if at all) without her twin brother, Billy (Edward Hogg), who was killed in an accident a few months earlier, prompting Anna’s spiral into hiding within the depths of her imagination. She’s become preoccupied with making films in the confines of the backyard home, as something of a lasting connection to her brother with whom she used to do the same.
Anna’s shed-made shorts feature an assembly of makeshift sets constructed from bits and bobs around the place, and they tend to star her thumbs as smiley-faced utterers of pop culture references, existential hypotheses or sometimes both (“Yogi Bear was a moral nihilist, stealing all those picnics with no consideration of the consequences”). I will be honest and admit that the first sign of these digit deliverers of oddball observances initially had me very concerned for what was going to follow. Specifically, a term coined, or at least frequently used, by a friend of mine came to mind: “twee as fuck.”
Some of the films and filmmakers he’s lobbed this descriptor at (God Help the Girl and the oeuvre of Wes Anderson to name a few) are ones I happen to like. But every so often, I think it works as a valuable derogatory term for a couple of features, namely some of Michel Gondry’s less satisfying efforts like The Science of Sleep and Mood Indigo, where the preoccupation with hand-crafted kookiness actually makes the emotional undercurrents come across as insincere additional posturing in order to maintain a certain aesthetic (#aesthetic). And though the thumb films do bring to mind some of Michel Gondry’s stuff (as well as British TV series The Adam and Joe Show), Tunnard doesn’t overdo it with the use of them, nor does she rely on them solely as a tool for conveying her lead’s emotional baggage. Aesthetic-wise, too, there’s something pleasing about setting this film in the countryside of northern England, which offers a more memorably murky bunch of exteriors for this sort of arrested development tale than the usual city or suburban backdrops that tend to be a staple of the subgenre.
Anyway, in the run-up to Anna’s birthday, mother Marion (Lorraine Ashbourne, mostly asked to delivery scathing putdowns) delivers an ultimatum for her to move out of the shed (which is also filled up with various belongings of Billy’s) and get on with her life, preferably via a better job than the menial parks and recreation one she works at a local boating centre. From boating classes, Anna knows a young boy called Clint (Ozzy Meyers, in his first film role), and their own respective tragedies are about to intertwine.
Clint’s mother is succumbing to cancer, and the troubled, friendless child starts hanging around Anna and Marion’s home (also shared with profanity-prone grandmother Jean, played by Eileen Davies). Anna forms a strange but mutually beneficial friendship with the lad, one of many factors that inform her gradual rise from stability purgatory. Other factors include the return of exuberant best friend Fiona (Rachael Deering), soft-spoken, awkward admirer Brendan (Brett Goldstein) and hallucinations of brother Billy.
Alongside the brash comic nature of much of the movie’s banter (“You don’t look like you haven’t made an effort, you look like you can’t afford it,” says Marion to Anna early on) is an enlivening candour about the subject of bereavement (“Am I still a twin if my twin’s dead?”), and a prickly nature to its emotional undercurrent that helps the zigzagging between darker reflections and broad Northern English humour go down in a more robust way than most films of this ilk.
And that — Jodie Whittaker’s commanding lead turn aside — is the central pleasure of Adult Life Skills: how it sort of sneaks up on you when it comes to the power of its skillfully-performed emotional beats, walking the fine line between outward whimsy and sincerity that so few dramedies manage to pull off successfully. It may walk a familiar path, but as with any genre/subgenre film, it’s the execution that matters, and when it comes to films aimed at giving a kick up the backside to the current crop of late 20/early 30-somethings in stasis, this is one of the finest examples to come out of the UK to date. Two personified thumbs up.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.