Sunday, May 20th, 2018
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ADULT LIFE SKILLS: A Bittersweet, Stealth Tearjerker

This little gem of a film won the Nora Ephron Prize at this year’s Tribeca film festival, which is awarded to recognise the work of female writers or directors whose film is making its North American premiere at the festival, and it’s easy to see why. Adult Life Skills is based on writer/director Rachel Tunnard’s short film Emotional Fuse Box and

ADULT LIFE SKILLS: A Bittersweet, Stealth Tearjerker

This little gem of a film won the Nora Ephron Prize at this year’s Tribeca film festival, which is awarded to recognise the work of female writers or directors whose film is making its North American premiere at the festival, and it’s easy to see why.

Adult Life Skills is based on writer/director Rachel Tunnard’s short film Emotional Fuse Box and centres on the character of Anna (Jodie Whittaker). Anna is approaching her 30th birthday and struggling to cope with recent life events, which are gently revealed to us throughout the film via flashbacks and Anna’s visual manifestations of the past as she attempts to live in the here and now.

These traumatic life events have resulted in her having lived in a shed in her Mum’s garden for the past 18 months, making online videos starring her thumbs. This is where we meet her, working a dead-end job in an outdoor centre and enduring the constant harassment of her well-meaning mother, who wants nothing more than for her daughter to find herself a boyfriend and a flat. It is only when Anna crosses paths with a young boy, Clint (Ozzy Myers), who seems as troubled and lost as she is, that she is forced to confront her life situation.

Sweet and Sour

While similar to other whimsical British debut features, such as Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, and sharing a quirky DIY aesthetic with some of Michel Gondry’s work in the form of Anna’s shed-made videos, this film feels more rooted in realism, both in terms of its style of humour and its characters behaviour. As a result, the film is more engaging and relatable than it could have been, never alienating its spectator or becoming too saccharine-sweet.

ADULT LIFE SKILLS: A Bittersweet, Stealth Tearjerker

source: Lorton Distribution

This rejection of the overly-sentimental in favour of a more realistic, albeit still heartfelt and emotional, representation of life and loss is carried through into Anna’s relationship with would-be love interest Brendan (Brett Goldstein). Their interactions are both hilarious and cringingly awkward at times, but what is so great about the depiction of their relationship is that it is never the central point of the narrative or the end goal for Anna. This is very much her story and any potential love interest can only be considered once she has resolved her own emotional challenges.

Ostensibly a comedy drama, or dramedy if you’re so inclined as to call it one, the humour slowly gives way to reveal a moving and heartfelt exploration of loss and grief. While there is humour, exceptionally well delivered by all involved, the film’s real heart is in the realistic and engaging portrayal of Anna’s relationships with those around her as they all cope with their grief in their own ways.

This theme will resonate particularly well with anyone who has experienced loss and used humour and laughter to overcome it, or even anyone who has relied on the sometimes inappropriate humour of friends to get them through rough times, and who hasn’t?

The down to earth setting of Adult Life Skills lends itself to the restrained visual style of its director and is aided by the work of cinematographer Bet Rourich, who also worked on the original short film. Pops of colour in the form of balloons, toys, a discarded shoe, and even the small detail of Anna’s bright yellow nails permeate the subdued winter setting of Yorkshire. This contrast reflects Anna’s stilted emotional situation; clinging to a past happiness when she feels there is none to be found around her.

ADULT LIFE SKILLS: A Bittersweet, Stealth Tearjerker

source: Lorton Distribution

For children of the 80s this will particularly hit home as Anna’s arrested development often comes in the form watching old video tapes full of nostalgic references, from Neighbours to The Goonies. These sequences are both funny and melancholy when juxtaposed with Anna’s feelings of becoming increasingly lost. What the film succeeds in doing is never straying into kitsch or pop-culture references for the sake of a cheap gag; these experiences and memories feel real.

Emotional Realism

While Jodie Whittaker’s fabulous and utterly convincing central performance carries the film, the rest of the cast are equally strong, without exception. In fact, some of the best comic moments of the film are focused around the three generations of women in Anna’s now all-female family, as they all get under one another’s feet in a confined space.

The trio of Anna, her mother (Lorraine Ashbourne) and her grandmother (Eileen Davies) are completely relatable to anyone who has outspoken women in their family, with all three actresses conveying an extremely watchable dynamic. In addition, the young actor playing Clint (Ozzy Myers) is fantastic in what is, surprisingly, his first ever film role. The relationship between Anna and Clint is both heart-breaking and uplifting in equal measure, not least due to these two accomplished performances.

The film slowly amasses a sequence of events from the profoundly awkward to the endearingly familial over the course of its running time. and sharing these experiences with Anna makes them relatable, believable and profoundly identifiable. As a result, by the climactic scenes of the film, we are 100 percent with Anna emotionally and I dare you not to be moved by the final scenes of the film. While the central theme may be one of letting go and moving on, there is also the sense that Anna is also on a return journey; to her hometown, her family, and her memories, only on different terms.

Conclusion

Having seen the trailer for Adult Life Skills and sought it out for a number of reasons, for example: wanting to support independent British releases, being a fan of romantic comedies, and having a personal interest in female stories made by women, I feel like I got something slightly different to the film I was expecting. However, I firmly believe that this is actually for the better. What could easily have been an entertaining, funny and perfectly serviceable British comedy about familiar themes turned out to have a much more dramatic and emotional impact than I had anticipated.

Overall, Adult Life Skills is an assured and engrossing debut that deserves to find an audience. While viewers shouldn’t expect an out-and-out laugh fest, the bittersweet comedy of this film is engaging and heartfelt. Rachel Tunnard is definitely a talent to watch out for in the future and, hopefully, we will continue to see more from her excellent cast of actors.

Have you managed to see Adult Life Skills? If so, let us know what you thought. Do you think it deserves a wider release?

Adult Life Skills is currently showing in selected cinemas in the UK and via a number of VOD platforms. Click here for options in the UK or click here for the release date in your country.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyEe6cXU-v8

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Angela Trott is a PhD Film researcher from the UK who divides her time between film watching, writing, teaching, and tea drinking in equal measure.

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