A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
From the Edinburgh Film Festival 2016. In cinemas now.
Having already bagged the Nora Ephron prize at Tribeca, small UK independent film Adult Life Skills held its European premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival.
Meet Anna (played by Broadchurch’s Jodie Whittaker). Her 30th birthday almost upon her, Anna’s stuck in a rut. Camped out in a shed at the bottom of her mother’s garden surrounded by childhood paraphernalia, our eccentric heroine spends every spare moment making videos with her thumbs and obsessing over 90s icon David Hasselhoff – interrupted only by her rather relaxed job in a local Peak district activity centre and her mother on a walkie-talkie loudly telling her to get a life. When a young boy whose mother is dying of cancer causes friction with the other kids at the centre, Anna is instructed to look after him and we find out the real reason why Anna is failing to move out (or on).
At the Q and A at Edinburgh, writer and director Rachel Tunnard joked that she’d originally written a miserable drama about a miserable girl doing a lot of miserable looking out of windows. Apparently her brother told her it was terrible – so she decided to write a comedy about grief instead.
I suspect this tale might have been a tad exaggerated as I’ve been a fan of Rachel’s writing ever since encountering her on a screenwriters’ programme back in 2010. A film editor at the time, it was immediately clear that Rachel had real flair and a distinctive writing voice with a sharp eye for telling and meaningful detail.
On paper, Adult Life Skills sounds like the definition of “quirk”, and is perhaps reminiscent of a certain kind of American indie film. Indeed, some reviewers have criticised it as being too consciously quirky, without seeing that the eccentric details – the thumb-videos, Hasselhoff masks, Shed puns and bobble-hats – are not there for reasons of stylistic cutesiness, but are rooted, cleverly, to the underlying narrative and tell us something about Anna’s emotional state. For Anna is not just a kiddult who doesn’t want to grow up – a female version of the classic eternally-teenage male character of so many American comedies. She has a very different reason to want to stay in the past. The cluttered contents of her shed are her only link to her twin brother, killed in an accident, and who they were when they were together. Are you still a twin if your twin is dead, she asks, seeringly. Anna is not just stuck in the past but is struggling to see her way through to an identity of her own. The shed seems to represent her own jumbled memories and sense of self. A moment where she walks into someone else’s shed and realises that there are other consciousnesses, other people desperately holding their memories like a bolster around them, is perhaps the most moving – and profound – of the whole film.
If all this makes Adult Life Skills sound a bit heavy – it’s anything but. The appreciative Edinburgh audience laughed throughout (apart from the sad bits). Lively, humourous, moving, eccentric – Tunnard covers all bases and skilfully manoeuvres this playful film into sadder territory without skipping a beat.
Of course, it helps to have an utterly superb central performance from Jodie Whittaker – stretching her comedy wings after the grieving mother roles for which she’s become so famous – effortlessly making us laugh and cry.
It’s also a particular delight to see a film so jam-packed with great female parts. Anna’s mother, Marion (Lorraine Ashbourne) hides her own grief under a more tart exterior leading to some sparky exchanges. Whilst grandmother, Eileen Davies, and comedy legend, Alice Lowe, add some bawdy and heightened light relief. Rachael Deering is particularly winning as energetic, fun, exasperated (and sometimes exasperating) best friend Fiona.
And the boys aren’t too shabby either. Brett Goldstein offers up a delightfully handsome if slightly unusual love interest -fed up of girls he fancies assuming he’s gay – whilst youngster Ozzy Myers gives a wonderfully deadpan performance as miniature, would-be cowboy, Clint.
If I have one criticism, I was unsure about seeing Anna’s dead brother, Billy. Based on scientific research, it was explained at the Edinburgh Film Festival’s Q&A that hallucinations are a common characteristic of twin grief – something that can be hard for other family members to understand. True to life as this might be, not seeing him would have increased that sense of absence and given greater power to the objects and unfinished projects left behind. I was also unsure about the replays of Anna and Billy’s parody videos. Seeing the pair as adults running around like 118 118 seemed to jar slightly with the tone of the rest of the film for this reviewer.
But, this is a minor complaint.
Beautifully written, acted and paced and full of warmth and humour, Adult Life Skills is a hugely entertaining film that’s both funny and moving in equal measure.
A comedy about grief sounds an unlikely combination, but Adult Life Skills pulls it off with aplomb. Catch it while you can.
As a small UK independent film, Adult Life Skills is out now and will be playing at selected cinemas throughout the UK. Writer/director Rachel Tunnard and lead actress, Jodie Whittaker, are appearing at various Q&A sessions around the country. To find out where it is showing and further information please visit: adultlifeskills.co.uk/cinemas/
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