A woman mourning her twin brother’s death flirts with staying a kid forever in Rachel Tunnard’s Adult Life Skills, a feature debut that wears its quirks on its sleeve. Likeable but more formulaic than seems appropriate given its protagonist, the film will draw some attention Stateside as a leading vehicle for Jodie Whittaker, the current star of Doctor Who. But while the two roles have a certain playful kinship, most fans will hope there are meatier leading parts for the actor just around the corner.
Whittaker’s Anna lives in a shed behind the house her mother Marion (Lorraine Ashbourne) and grandmother Jean (Eileen Davies) share. She’s been permanently camped there, surrounded by handmade puppets and film props, for the year and a half since her brother Billy’s death. The two used to make intentionally amateurish videos (amusing in the short bits we see) for their own website; the closest she gets to talking about her grief these days is when she draws faces on both her thumbs and makes thumb-puppet videos, turning them into astronauts on a collision course with the sun.
Sweet but less oddball than it thinks.
Anna has a job of sorts, at an activities center for children, but its summer-camp vibe dovetails with her goofy obsessions. With a slightly harsher version of tough love than viewers may find credible, Marion is trying to force Anna to get a real apartment and leave her kid-stuff behind. While she books realtor appointments to inspect one cheap dump after another, Jean tries to get her to lay off by tossing acerbically naughty quips her way.
While its protagonist is believably eccentric, the people surrounding her look more like transparent plot devices the more of them we meet. There’s the charmingly shy, handsome straight-arrow who obviously has a crush on Anna (Brett Goldstein’s Brendan, who was Whittaker’s co-star in a Doctor Who episode); the adventurous bestie trying to get Anna out of her shell (Fiona, played by Rachael Deering); and a troubled child whose suffering is engineered to absorb some of Anna’s self-pity.
That kid, Clint (Ozzy Myers, quietly charming in his screen debut), may be an underwritten character with too little to do, but onscreen he makes a promising foil for Anna. Wearing an old-fashioned gunslinger’s hat and a scowl, he makes a bit of trouble at the activity center — acting out while his ailing mother struggles through what are probably her final days. His house is across the street from Anna’s, so her backyard shed is a welcome distraction for the boy: When she’s asked to look after him during his mom’s hospital stays, Anna finally has a playmate who doesn’t think she needs to grow up.
It’s a shame that here and elsewhere, montages set to folk-songwriter tunes sometimes substitute for storytelling, making the film’s therapeutic trajectory even more obvious. Left to their own devices, Anna and Clint might’ve come up with a stranger and more charming adventure.
Production company: Pico Pictures
Distributor: Screen Media Films
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Lorraine Ashbourne, Brett Goldstein, Rachael Deering, Eileen Davies, Alice Lowe, Ozzy Myers
Director-screenwriter-editor: Rachel Tunnard
Producer: Michael Berliner
Executive producers: Jakob Abrahamsson, Paul Ashton, Jodie Whittaker
Director of photography: Bet Rourich
Production designer: Beck Rainford
Costume designer: Rebecca Gore
Casting directors: Des Hamilton, Lara Manwaring