Michael Cera is one of three dysfunctional siblings in Dustin Guy Defa’s comedy drama

The Adults

Source: Berlin International Film Festival

‘The Adults’

Dir/scr: Dustin Guy Defa. USA. 2023. 88mins

The small-town dysfunctional family drama has been a staple of American cinema since the word ‘indie’ was first uttered, and it’s hard to see how even the most inventive creator could find any new spins on it. But perfect casting and one really strong tweak helps enormously and, while Dustin Guy Defa doesn’t entirely break new ground with downbeat comedy-drama The Adults, he sets an engagingly off-kilter tone with a poignant work that occupies a dramatic space somewhere between Kenneth Lonergan and Whit Stillman – or that might be described as mumblecore Chekhov with a side order of Looney Tunes cartoon vocals.

The Adults is a gift to its actors, allowing them to explore the tensed-up taciturnity of emotional repression but also to go haywire

Following its Berlin Encounters premiere, a cast headed by much-loved Michael Cera and increasingly familiar TV faces Hannah Gross (a regular on Mindhunter and also seen in Joker and Michael Almereyda’s Tesla) and Sophia Lillis (I Am Not OK With This) should find it favour with discerning, mature audiences.

Cera in particular has expertise when it comes to messed-up families, having made his name on TV’s Arrested Development – and arrested development of a different kind is exactly the issue here. Cera plays the withdrawn, manifestly uptight Eric, who returns to his home town in autumn, ostensibly to spend time with his two sisters after an uncommunicative three years away. At first, he manages to avoid them as well as a friend he’s supposed to visit, but eventually arrives at the large old family house still occupied by sister Rachel (Gross).

Rachel has lived there alone since their mother died, and has been experiencing depression that’s apparent in her restrained body language and barely concealed resentment towards Eric. Then along comes younger sister Maggie (Lillis), who lightens the tone with her irrepressible – perhaps too irrepressible – bounce. It turns out that, while the trio are barely able to communicate their feelings to each other in a coherent, direct fashion, they are more comfortable reverting to the roles they established for themselves as children.

This means either launching into bizarre dance routines – like a jaw-dropping performance to Men at Work’s 1980s chestnut ‘Overkill’ – or speaking in the goofy voices of cartoonish personae that make them feel secure. The women play child-like, Moominish characters Mooby Mooby and Wug Wug, while Eric plays on his repressions as a posh, proper Englishman named Charles. Sometimes, however, the voices become the expression of a troubled Id that won’t be silenced, like at a party where Eric does his Tony Soprano, while Rachel launches into a deranged scatological rant.

Along with these private rituals that insulate the siblings from the outside world, Eric also has a compulsion to gamble, with a deviously competitive poker style. Unable to leave town once he’s got himself hooked on the local game circuit, via bemused local acquaintance Dennis (Wavyy Jonez), he gets into deep water when he falls in with harder players. It’s at this last game, in a beautifully executed scene, that Eric, teary-eyed, seems about to reveal something about the father who is never mentioned – but his intense story of familial rivalries turns out to be a riff on a very well-known movie.

The Adults is a gift to its actors, allowing them to explore the tensed-up taciturnity of emotional repression but also to go haywire with the voices and the crazily choreographed body language. Cera previously appeared in Defa’s 2017 Person to Person and you can see how fully at ease he is with the director’s particular rhythms, which punctuate introspective semi-longueurs with bursts of WTF flamboyance. Gross and Lillis expertly play off against each other in their duet scenes, matching Rachel’s testy recalcitrance against Rachel’s impish, almost adolescent gaucheness which is masking its own unease. As a triangle of reluctant co-dependence, the family dynamics are structured beautifully both in the writing and the acting.

As fully-realised cinema, however, The Adults feels a little too low-key to be entirely satisfying: Defa’s visual style is studiedly discreet, and the autumnal beiges of Tim Curtin’s photography, together with the gentle chamber eccentricity of Alex Weston’s score, makes it feel as if the film is deliberately taking a polite back seat to allow maximum space to the performances. Production designer Caity Birmingham, however, deserves special praise for furnishing the family house in a way that allows every wall picture, every weathered trinket and bit of furniture to unobtrusively but eloquently limn out the history of its inhabitants.

Production companies: Dweck Productions, Savage Rose Films

International sales: Universal Pictures Content Group Millen.Lemma@nbcuni.com

Producers: Allison Rose Carter, Jon Read, Michael Cera, Julia Thompson, Hannah Dweck, Theodore Schaefer

Cinematography: Tim Curtin

Editors: Michael Taylor, Dustin Guy Defa

Production design: Caity Birmingham

Music: Alex Weston

Main cast: Michael Cera, Hannah Gross, Sophia Lillis, Wavyy Jonez