COVID-19 retro movie festival: Adult Life Skills #MovieReview

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

With COVID-19 cutting a swathe through just about everything worldwide, it’s no surprise that cinema is being as affected as anything else.

In just one day, one of my favourite cinema chains temporarily closed, the Sydney Film Festival was cancelled, the French Film Festival was postponed and my other favourite cinema group went to daily session releases, pending some kind of eventual closure. That was on top of the release dates of many films such as A Time to Die, Lovebirds and A Quiet Place II being pushed back until much later in the year.

So, given that new movies are very thin on the ground, out in the big wide world at least, I’ve decided to raid my DVD and Blu-Ray shelves, pull out the films I’d always meant to watch but never quite managed to and finally give them their moment in the reviewing sun.

As you self-isolate and quarantine and stay snug and safe indoors, I hope you’ll enjoy my very own COVID-19 retro movie festival!

REVIEW

Until you have been plunged into the irrational, exhausting vortex of grief that follows the death of a loved one, it is near impossible to understand how deeply grief can affect you, every contour of your life, and the lives of those around you.

None of the usual rules apply anymore; all those carefully-honed skills you have honed through your life, the ability to do everything from pay bills to live in your own place to catching up with friends, seem like distantly-recalled trinkets of a life once lived, something that is now so far out of your reach that you’re not even sure you can get them back again.

Or, really, if you want to.

It is a sad and cruelly disorienting time which writer and director Rachel Tunnard captures with aching, affecting honesty in her 2016 film Adult Life Skills which began life a year or so earlier as short film, Emotional Fusebox.

Jodie Whittaker, who has garnered considerable fame of late as the Thirteenth Doctor Who, demonstrates how versatile an actor she is by bringing her trademark quirk and wit but so much more to Anna, a 29-year-old woman who is staring down the less-than-thrilling environs of her 30th birthday living in the shed in her mum’s backyard, making home mades that features two thumb-like beings journeying through space and working at some kind of day camp for kids.

She is, it becomes quickly obvious, broken, lost in a life that makes no sense to her anymore without her twin brother and creative partner in crime Billy (Edward Hogg) who died in some unspecified way not that long ago.

It is long ago enough for her mother Marion (Lorraine Ashburn), who endlessly harangues her about lack of drive, direction and dress sense, and her hilariously observant, sharp-tongued and right on the emotional money grandmother Jean (Eileen Davies) to have taken steps to living a life without Billy’s irreverent, big smile presence.

They’re clearly still hurting in their own ways but are doing their best to move in in some fashion, and you have to wonder if the source of Marion’s evident and oft-expressed frustration with her daughter comes from a place of subconsciously being reminded that Billy is gone and nothing is the same.

It’s hard to escape the loss of someone precious and important when every time you look out your kitchen window, you see your daughter living in your shed – known variously and gorgeously comedically as Dawn of the Shed, Shed Zeppelin and Right Shed, Fred – reverting back to being a teenager and trying to make films in the same way she did with her twin brother.

The stories that make up these films are illustrative of the barren, lost place in which Anna has found herself.

The two thumb astronauts engage in deeply amusing and touching existential discussions about why they are flying through space, what it would mean if they plunged into the sun and died in a fiery inferno, and whether there is anything to be gained by avoiding that fate and moving in.

They’re all questions Anna is clearly asking herself deep down but which can only find expression in these once-removed short films which mirror the irreverence and goofiness of the films she once made with Billy, which sit on a website she tends to like a shrine, the remaining physical evidence that she once had a brother and he mattered.

People try to break into this insular world of mourning but usually to no visible effect.

Her mother comes in, axe swinging, taking her off to see dingy apartments she can rent and constantly haranguing her about making stupid films while local real estate agent, hunky recently-returned Brendan (Brett Goldstein) tries to connect her with his immensely socially awkward way, an approach that yields next-to-nothing despite his obvious romantic interest in Anna, not simply because everyone assumes he’s gay (it doesn’t quite land as a joke but it’s endearing enough not to be offensive) but because he’s never quite sure how to respond when Anna rarely responds to his tentative attempts at connection.

But it’s eight-year-old Clint who finally breaks through the wall of grief Anna has unwillingly but effectively built for herself.

Dressed every single day as a cowboy and desperately trying to cope with the fact that his mother is dying of cancer, Clint is a soul set apart, acting out in the group of kids at Anna’s place of work before he is siphoned off to Anna to deal with.

She’s resentful at first but little bit by little bit he and Anna form a bond, one that comes to play a pivotal role, much to Anna’s surprise, in her eventual emergence, or the beginning of it anyway, from her aimless fog of grief.

Adult Life Skills is a quietly, quirky joy, a film that explores some very intense, heartfelt issues without once feeling like it is a weight upon your viewing soul.

The deftness of the writing but even more so, the nuanced delivery by Whittaker of a character who could have all too easily come across as unlikeably anti-social propels the film on its gently offbeat but emotionally meaningful arc from lostness and existential moribund through a powerful awakening from grief that never feels anything less than real and palpably honest.

Even during the finale, which is its own happy quiet kind of uplifting odd, the epiphanies are small “e” and make sense in the place in which Anna has found herself.

In an American film, the final act would be a thing of towering overcoming, replete with fist pumping, energetic soundtrack and a vivaciously jaunty waltz into the brightness of a better future.

And while there is progress and happiness of sorts in the final act of Adult Life Skills, which sports a fittingly lo-fi soundtrack featuring artists like Micah P. Hinson, The Middle East and Gabrielle Alpin, it is of the kind that feels hard-earned, grounded and deeply meaningful, one that acknowledges that the loss of Billy is still very much there but that there are people and possibilities coming in to get life some sense of satisfying form and function again.

It’s a gentle road to Damascus moment if you like, one that feels quite relatable if you have ever gone through grief where you don’t suddenly snap out of the worst of the loss of someone so much as quietly and without fanfare slip into the next stage of your life.

Forget the five stages of grief; Adult Life Skills, with its whit, whimsy and set of emotional reality writ beautifully and with meaning, nails how it feels to feel like you have lost everything and will never get it back, only to find that maybe, just maybe, there is still some living to be done after all.

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