Thanks to the smarter aspects of its storytelling and its likable lead performance, “Adult Life Skills” contains considerable charms. How sad it is that writer-director Rachel Tunnard lets the eccentricity eclipse the humanity in this quirky British indie about a woman whose spirit grief has warped.
Expanded from a short film by Tunnard, this feature debut, opening Friday at the 4-Star in The City, combines a trauma drama with an arrested-development comedy and contains hints of “Lars and the Real Girl,” “Laggies” and “Young Adult.” The setting is a rural English town. The tone ranges from whimsically cerebral to broad and lowbrow.
Twenty-nine-year-old Anna (Jodie Whittaker), emotionally derailed by her twin brother’s death, has been living in her mother’s garden shack for 18 months. (“Shed Zeppelin,” she labels it, at one point.) Her life consists of unfulfilling work at an outdoor-activities center and withdrawing into her safe world at home. There, in her shed, amid DIY space-travel toys, Anna makes videos starring her thumbs.
Her behavior, which includes drying her clothes in the microwave, has depleted the patience of her sharp-tongued mother (Lorraine Ashbourne), who orders her to move out by her upcoming 30th birthday.
Anna balks, but unexpected circumstances prompt her to consider growing up.
These include romantic possibilities, with wannabe writer and fellow misfit Brendan (Brett Goldstein). And 7-year-old Clint (Ozzy Myers), whose mother is dying, inspires her to realize she’s not the only one experiencing loss. A visit from life-embracing friend Fiona (Rachael Deering) also affects her outlook.
The film contains amusing oddball material.
Anna’s squabbling thumbs discuss hubris and nihilism. A matter-of-fact activities-center announcement cautions children not to “use oars as weapons.”
Anna’s fondness for David Hasselhoff and “The Goonies” entertainingly captures the appeal of 1980s and 1990s pop culture.
Unfortunately, however, Tunnard lays on the quirks so excessively that the constant eccentricity — goofy attire, silly toys, wacky anatomical gags — upstages the more richly human and satisfying material. The kookiness too often rings false and the offbeat love story never feels real.
The Anna-Clint scenes seem similarly contrived and meetings between Anna and an imagined ghost of her dead brother flop terribly.
But Whittaker shines. The British TV star (“Dr. Who”) makes Anna emotionally credible even when the screenplay fails her. She excels on both the comic and serious fronts.
The supporting cast, too, contributes fine work, though the players have fewer opportunities to transcend cliche.
As Anna’s mom, Ashbourne delivers her put-downs sharply while conveying something deeper beneath the barbs.
Eileen Davies, playing Anna’s sex-obsessed grandmother, supplies moving humanity when not delivering raunchy one-liners. A shot of Davies’ and Ashbourne’s mother and daughter characters, arms hooked together lovingly, makes for a wonderful moment and demonstrates Tunnard’s status as a talent to watch for.
Adult Life Skills
Two and a half stars
Starring: Jodie Whittaker, Lorraine Ashbourne, Brett Goldstein, Eileen Davies
Written and directed by: Rachel Tunnard
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
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