Adult Life Skills is a charming film about the struggle to come to terms with loss and move on... and the unlimited comedic potential of thumbs with smiley faces.
An action blockbuster can coast along on its set-pieces and a comedy can get by merely with a few well-timed gags. We look past any lack of character depth because the films are enjoyable and therefore satisfy the most important criterion.
But a drama about loss hinges solely on the protagonist and their journey to recovery or deterioration. If we don’t care about them, we’re not only apathetic about where they end up, but also about how they got there.
In Adult Life Skills, Rachel Tunnard’s feature debut and winner of the Nora Ephron Prize at Tribeca, we’re immediately drawn to Jodie Whittaker’s 30-year-old Anna. She lives in a shed covered with pun-filled signs that say ‘Dawn of the Shed’ and ‘Right Shed Fred’. She’s kooky and makes home videos starring her own thumbs playing two cosmonauts travelling to the sun, who talk about Icarus and philosophical concepts in strong Yorkshire accents. It’s impossible not to like her.
As we learn to more about Anna, the 80s nostalgia that was funny at first becomes tragic – in its most acute form of ‘home’ and ‘pain’. Her twin brother Billy died recently and Anna hasn’t recovered from the loss. Suddenly, the shed is no longer a manifestation of her kookiness but a depressing shrine to Billy and a desperate attempt to hold on to his memory.
A big part of the film’s overall success is making this lack of emotional recovery believable. We only ever see Billy through Anna’s eyes. This isn’t a coincidence. It highlights Anna’s state of mind, that she feels she has lost the only person who understood her. Billy was her partner in crime, the original second thumb cosmonaut and co-star in their hilarious parody instruction videos.
This presentation of a deceased figure is reminiscent of the excellent Beginners in which Ewan McGregor deals with the loss of his father. In both films, the dead were ironically filled with a joie de vivre that infected the protagonists and ultimately defected following their deaths.
It reminds us that, whether they like it or not, the heroes are now defined by the people they lost as much as they are by themselves, and Adult Life Skills is very aware of that. A rousing pep-talk from her mother or vivacious best friend will not be enough to move on from her brother’s death.
Like Beginners, with its examination of characters’ relationship to certain locations, Adult Life Skills also preoccupies itself with interpreting space. Anna’s isolation and desolation is compounded by where she lives. Its West Yorkshire setting is dominated by dark greens and deep blues. Anna lives in a shed at the end her mother’s garden, which itself is at the end of a long bumpy road. Characters hilariously have to communicate via walkie-talkies throughout the film.
These distances and obstacles make it easy for Anna to push away those who are closest and allows her to revert back inside the shed; the physical extension of her mental state. It takes a stubborn and scene-stealing seven-year-old cowboy called Clint (a brilliant acting debut for Ozzy Myers) suffering from his own loss to push Anna onto a path of acceptance and healing. Even then it’s a messy process.
A film that chooses to explore the mourning of one person surrounded by those who have managed to move on (at least on the surface) is always risky. We can easily turn against that person because we tire of the black-and-white tension between them. “Move on!” they shout. “No!” the mourner shouts back. It can make them unintentionally appear like they’re wallowing in self-pity.
Anna doesn’t provoke this, partly because Adult Life Skill‘s very funny script has complete control over the morbidness, letting it overwhelm just at the right moments, but also because it’s clear that her family and friends are also suffering, if only behind a thick carapace that only cracks momentarily. The distinctions in Adult Life Skills aren’t between those who mourn and those who have moved on, but between different types of mourners. It is only when Anna realises this that she starts to progress.
Films about someone’s loss are rarely about where someone ends up, but rather how they got there. So, it’s a testament to the strength of Tunnard’s witty and moving script, and Jodie Whittaker’s excellent performance that although we suspect we know how the film will end, we simply don’t care, because we’re too busy rooting for Anna to get there.