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Adult Life Skills is a self proclaimed “comedy about grief” by British filmmaker Rachel Tunnard, starring Jodie Whittaker and an undeniably stand-out performance from newcomer Ozzy Myers. The film is a full length development of Tunnard’s 2014 BAFTA nominated short Emotional Fusebox. Adult Life Skills won the Nora Ephron prize at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, and, appropriately, Tunnard’s film is almost entirely and unapologetically about women.
Three generations of women live in the house (well, one in the shed), and the story revolves around Anne who, approaching 30, is given an ultimatum by her mother to: move out of the shed (and possibly find a boyfriend). Sounds like a run of the mill mid-(ish)-life crisis comedy, but there’s more to it!
Whittaker, who you might remember as the grief stricken English rose, mourning the loss of her son in ITV’s Broadchurch, plays a grief stricken and rather unkempt Yorkshire lass, this time mourning the loss of her twin brother. Although that makes her sound like a bit of a one trick pony, she does manage a touching performance, particularly opposite Myers, who plays 8-year-old Clint, a boy also struggling with his own loss. Anne finds a kindred spirit in this quirky child who loves cowboys and ignoring instructions and his mother, whose cancer means she’s fading fast.
This unlikely duo do not always get on – Anne takes Clint’s “I think I’m going to be like you when I grow up,” as a compliment, but really he meant “sad and angry all the time.” Anne unwittingly teaches him how to grieve, and Clint manages to pull her out of her self-destructive spiral when no one else can. It’s a poignant story at its heart, and the interactions between these two are surprising in a way only children can be, funny and sweet.
Walking the line between quaint and stifling, the rolling shots of the Yorkshire countryside and the lonely highway add to the isolation Anne feels – it becomes clear why her and Clint need their astronauts and cowboys for escapism. The stifling nature of the town is only emphasised by Anne’s outspoken friend Fiona (Rachael Deering), who comes back from a two year long travelling stint to find Anne living in her mother’s shed. The stark contrast between the two comes across as a clunky way of reminding the audience how abnormal Anne is, and the dialogue between them leaves something to be desired, with their big fight culminating in four “f*** you”s in succession. Not exactly groundbreaking.
The comedy of the piece comes in little moments of genius – Anne microwaving her underwear fresh from the washing machine because she’s late for work springs to mind. However it’s not particularly consistent, falling flat in areas, like everyone assuming the softly spoken well groomed Brendan is gay (he’s not). To contrast the comedy, slow-motion plus lens flares and dramatic music signalled moments where Anne vividly hallucinated her dead twin, to the extent of having full blown conversations with thin air. This gimmick was suitably jarring in its first occurrence, and added proportionately to the dramatic climax of the film, but was perhaps overused in the interim.
One of the biggest letdowns of the film was this: at the beginning, it looked like it was going to be a film about filmmaking. Anne used to make funny films with her brother – clips of which we see throughout the movie, and now alone, she makes films using her thumbs as the characters; the impending doom of her thumb-astronauts heading straight into the sun nicely mirrors the narrative, despite their existential questioning being a little heavy handed. There’s a motif of Anne finding faces in everything – in an egg box, in a pavement crack – but this artistry carries no weight in the climax of the film, rather it seems almost coincidental rather than vital to the narrative.
The journey of the film hinges on Anne digging herself out of the depths of grief and at times it felt as if the audience had to put in the heavy labour, shovel-full by agonising shovel-full, as Anne’s abrasive mother yelled at her to get her life in order yet again. Some of the too-awkward-to-be-charming encounters between Anne and her estate agent admirer even felt like dirt was being piled back on! Not ideal.
That being said, the movie started strong and ended as per expectations, with some moments of true emotion in between. The title, Adult Life Skills, refers to a girl guide badge conjectured by Brendan, which comes full circle in a well-meaning if slightly unwieldy manner at the end of the film. And if that does not some up the film in its entirety, I don’t know what does. Overall, a charming small-town story from a director with promise.