There are moments when Adult Life Skills feels like it is about to break free of the generic and become something infinitely more interesting. But it never quite gets there.
Adult Life Skills begins with two thumbs adorned with ballpoint faces waxing on about life’s more existential questions and from those initial seconds you know exactly what kind of movie you’re in for. This will be a journey through the quirkiness of its main character, the origin of that quirkiness and how she learns to maintain her quirkiness while becoming more functional in the world around her. It’s small-town, indie quirk, of course, as the Elliot Smith-inspired depression pop that fills the soundtrack attests, but, since the film is competently constructed, you will feel the tug of catharsis by the end. It’s a film you want to like, but it comes up lacking due to its blandness and familiarity.
Written and directed by Rachel Tunnard, the film follows Anna (Jodie Whittaker), the aforementioned thumb puppeteer who lives in her mother’s backyard shed and is days away from her 30th birthday. She’s enduring more than the usual angst around the milestone. Anna is a twin, and her brother, Billy (Edward Hogg, in visions Anna interacts with) died over a year earlier. The loss unmoored her, yet her mother, Marion (Lorraine Ashbourne), and grandmother, Jean (Eileen Davies), try to get Anna to move past her pain. The latter does so with gentle affection while Marion has issued an ultimatum. She wants Anna out of the shed and in a place of her own. It is time she grew up and emptied the nest.
Every morning, Anna rides an old BMX bike to her job at the local day camp where she is often met by Brendan (Brett Goldstein). He is a very strange man whose awkwardness in social situations will surely become the stuff of local legend, daunting his pursuit of Anna. She remains oblivious to his affections, placing him in the bloke zone. Marion and Jean ask Brendan to assist in finding Anna a place to live, not because of their friendship, but because he is the town real estate agent. He isn’t very good at it, which buys Anna more time.
The first half of the movie treads along, making a tiny mystery as to the cause of Anna’s anguish. For a time, it plays as a multi-generational study in femininity between Anna, Marion and Jean. Marion and Jean are more constrained by keeping up appearances and being part of the local order. Anna is less encumbered by these concerns. Her thumb puppetry, creative pursuits and general state of dishevelment mask her grief over the loss of Billy. They were twins and creative partners, making bad “how to” films that they posted to their website. It is a loss that comes close to breaking her.
The movie grows infinitely more interesting as Anna’s birthday looms and her anger toward her family, her brother, Brendan and her friend, Fiona (Rachel Deering), a recent returnee to the town after some time abroad, comes to a head. Whitaker is a performer of infinite charm, a quality that carries the bulk of this movie, so watching her snap has a stunning effect. The second half of the film involves all the mounting pressures in Anna’s life. Unfortunately, one of these involves Clint (Ozzy Myers), a cowboy-obsessed eight-year-old boy who goes to the camp Anna works at. Clint’s mother is dying and his acting out is supposed to reflect Anna’s, but he comes off as more of a prop from a checklist of attributes needed in an indie film. The character arrives late and distracts from the overall action.
The England Anna lives in is cold and always wet, and Tunnard makes fine use of it when symbolizing Anna’s moods. There’s a dankness to every scene except those that take place as part of Anna’s imagination. She creates her own films under bright lights and her interactions with the specter of Billy occur in sunshine and the strobe of a disco ball. The filmmaking is highly competent and frustrating in a way. There is a comfort in formula, but there are moments when Adult Life Skills feels like it is about to break free of the generic and become something infinitely more interesting. But it never quite gets there. The film has a cast and director of great skill, but it will go down as a curiosity for fans hungry for every role that the new Doctor Who played.