Berlin 2023

The Adults review – idiosyncratic comedy-drama about the cult of siblingness

Dustin Guy Defa's initially off-putting film eventually blossoms into a genuinely moving study of family in all its weirdness

Here is a quirky comic drama from writer-director Dustin Guy Defa that for an only child might resemble something closer to a horror film. The Adults is a strange, sometimes jarring indie that at times veers a little too closely to Sundance cutesiness and will for some deliver a fingernails-on-chalkboard effect. But as an unpacking of what it means to have grown up with siblings by your side – the in-jokes, the silly voices, the nonsensical songs and choreographed dances – it is brilliantly observational and in its resolution perhaps even quietly miraculous.

The “adults” in question are Eric (Michael Cera), Rachel (Hannah Gross), and Maggie (Sophia Lillis), twenty-something siblings who have grown apart following the death of their mother and who have in their own ways each entered a state of arrested development. Eric hasn't seen his sisters in three years and returns to his hometown, guiltily, to spend a perfunctory night in their company. Things are awkward because Rachel, who still lives in their dead parents' old house, feels abandoned, and is now depressed, while Maggie has recently dropped out of college. Eric intends to leave quickly, but is drawn into a series of increasingly high-stake poker games in the movie's entertaining B-plot that inadvertently increases the length of his stay – and his chance at reunification.

Dustin's script, which has a heavily improvised quality, takes its time to unveil the intimate language in which these three troubled characters will communicate; drawn back together, they're able to bond only through their collective experience of growing up; silly voices triumph over serious conversations. But as they fall back into old patterns, the movie's initial coldness begins to give way to something rawer and more authentic, glimpsed in the many reprisals of rehearsed dances and wacky alter-egos.

Defa and his performers nail these moments, in so much as the elaborate routines genuinely feel like fully lived-in bits from years ago. The cast commit themselves entirely and admirably, willing to create moments of cringe that initially read as the film failing to be funny. Yet later we realise the tumbleweed effect was likely purposeful. This movie knows better than most that other family's in-jokes are never funny to an outsider.

While Gross (sardonic and masking a deep vulnerability) and Lillis (like a puppy who desperately wants to play) are great, the movie proves a real showcase for Cera, who somehow – with patchy beard and a few extra pounds on him than we're used to – looks less comfortable as an adult man than he did as a gawky teenager. Here he gets to let his freak flag fly, though, adopting wild accents, and proving himself a more versatile performer than many would expect for an actor frequently maligned for “playing himself.”

The Adults is certainly more successful in its later stretch, and some might find its idiosyncratic sense of humour difficult to swallow. But beyond what doesn't work, few films in memory have quite so intimately captured the cult-like feeling of siblingness. Who else sees us with such maddening clarity and possesses the ability to make us small again, for better or worse, with a change of voice, or a line of a song?

The Adults was screened as part of the Berlinale Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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