D: Rachel Tunnard / 96m
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Lorraine Ashbourne, Brett Goldstein, Rachael Deering, Eileen Davies, Ozzy Myers, Alice Lowe, Edward Hogg
Following the death of her twin brother, twenty-nine year old Anna (Whittaker) has moved into the shed at the bottom of her mother’s garden. It’s been eighteen months since he died, but although Anna works at a local outdoor pursuits centre, she doesn’t socialise or spend any of her free time away from the shed. Instead she stays inside it making videos that depict her two thumbs as astronauts in a space capsule. She uses this as a way of maintaining a connection with her brother, as they both made similar videos when they were younger. A lot of the stuff that’s in the shed is items and objects that she and her brother either played with or created. But while Anna is apparently content to remain living there, her mother, Marion (Ashbourne), isn’t as keen. She wants Anna to move out of the shed and start to rebuild her life. With Anna’s thirtieth birthday fast approaching, Marion gives her daughter an ultimatum: Anna has to be out of there before her birthday.
Anna has no intention of agreeing to this, and avoids or ignores all her mother’s attempts to get her to change. At the outdoor pursuits centre, Anna is given the task of monitoring the number of molehills that pop up each night, as well as ridding the site of any graffiti. It’s boring, mundane work, but she doesn’t mind, as it at least takes her mind off her brother. The reappearance of an old friend, Fiona (Deering), after she’s been away for some time, sees Anna begin to get out more (much to her mother’s delight), but she’s still adamant about remaining in the shed. Even the clumsy attentions of Brendan (Goldstein), a local estate agent who’s known Anna since childhood, aren’t enough to get her to rethink her future.
But when an eight year old boy, Clint (Myers), ends up in her family’s care temporarily following the death of his mother, his presence in Anna’s life begins to chip away at the carefully built-up walls she’s erected since her brother’s death. A night out with Fiona doesn’t go as planned, and puts a strain on their friendship, and when Clint goes missing overnight, Anna realises that she can care about someone else. But there’s still the issue of the shed, and the deadline of Anna’s birthday. Will Anna hold on to her need to be there, or will recent events show her a different way forward?
Expanded from the short, Emotional Fusebox (2014) (a lot of which is included or recycled here), Adult Life Skills is writer/director Rachel Tunnard’s feature debut. It’s a terrific little movie that’s emotionally astute and, in places, effortlessly poignant. The central conceit, that Anna feels bereft from everything following her brother’s death, is handled with sympathy and compassion for the character’s feelings, and the sadness that overwhelms her so much is often expressed in beautifully understated fashion by Whittaker. Even after eighteen months (or maybe because of that amount of time), Anna’s retreat from the world can still be regarded as understandable, but there’s still the sense that she’s using her grief as a way of avoiding any potential further heartbreak in her life.
But while Anna’s self-imposed predicament is viewed sympathetically, and the toll of her bereavement is presented with a great deal of care and sincerity, Tunnard is wise enough to know that the travails of a near-thirty something living in a shed isn’t going to be enough for a full-length movie. And so we’re introduced to the people around Anna, the people who care about her. Her mother – played with unrepressed yet entirely credible frustration by Ashbourne – is trying her best to get Anna to move on with her life, and it’s a tribute to the quality of Tunnard’s writing that Marion isn’t just the movie’s token “bad guy” but a parent trying to avoid losing both her children. No matter how acerbic or demanding she may be, she still cares. The same goes for Jean (Davies), Anna’s grandmother. Jean is supportive of Anna’s “lifestye choice”, and recognises that it’s a way for Anna to deal with her grief, that in time she’ll find her way back to everyone and everything. And though she too behaves in an acerbic manner towards Marion, there’s still the same love there as Marion feels for Anna.
The introduction of Clint, a small boy with a big attitude, acts as a catalyst for Anna’s eventual coming to terms with her pain and sadness at no longer officially being a twin. He’s challenging, acts like he doesn’t care, and sports a cowboy hat, gun and holster. He gets Anna to talk about her brother, something it’s clear she hasn’t done since his death, and as she trusts him more and more, you can see the weight lift from her shoulders. Unsurprisingly it’s Myers’ first movie, and though some of his lines don’t have the clarity needed for the viewer to understand them fully, he’s a child with wonderfully expressive features, and for his age, an equally wonderful insouciance about him.
As the emotionally tongue-tied Brendan, Goldstein provides much of the movie’s good-natured comedy (“How… is your… period?”), and Deering offers solid support as Anna’s best friend. Hogg pops up as a snorkeler Anna encounters at odd moments, while Lowe is her no-nonsense, lower-case angry work colleague, Alice. All the cast give good performances, but it’s Whittaker who holds the attention throughout, channelling Anna’s grief, confusion, and anger with an honesty and a warmth that can’t help but make the character likeable and someone to root for.
Aside from the performances, there’s much else to enjoy in Adult Life Skills, from the absurdist conversations Anna comes up with for her thumb videos (and those are Tunnard’s thumbs, not Whittaker’s), to the mangled version of Morning Has Broken courtesy of a recorder-playing barman, and its affecting sense of childhood nostalgia. Tunnard, who originally tried to pass on directing this, proves an adept, instinctive director, and her script isn’t too shoddy either. Unlike a lot of first-time moviemakers, Tunnard gets the pace just right (she is first and foremost an editor), and though she does overdo it on the quirky, shed-based activity that Anna involves herself in, she makes up for it by making Anna’s re-emergence into the outside world truthful and in keeping with the emotional journey the character is embarked upon. There’s fine cinematography courtesy of Bet Rourich, and the West Yorkshire locations provide an attractive backdrop to the action, all of which adds up to a hugely enjoyable movie about grief and loss – no, honestly.
Rating: 8/10 – sweet and sincere, and with the ability to pack an emotional wallop from time to time, Adult Life Skills is a blend of quirky characterisations, even quirkier confrontations and encounters, and sometimes, a potent examination of how grief can paralyse a person beyond their ability to deal with it; with a generosity of heart and spirit that adds further resonance to a movie with bags of sincerity already, this is a movie that doesn’t short change its characters or its cast or its viewers, and is also one of the funniest and most enjoyable British movies of the last five years.