It's arrested development
Back in the early months of the pandemic, I adopted the habit of trying to watch a movie every day. The movies I watched the most of were mumblecore-adjacent indie dramedies from the late 2000s and 2010s, for two reasons: First, their normal-life, low-stakes interpersonal conflict was a comforting force in the bleak isolation that the world was experiencing. Second, they tend to be short, so they’re easy to watch in a sitting; if credits aren’t rolling by minute 95, then they’re much longer than average.
The problem with binging so many of these is that they start to run together. This is going to happen during any film-binging effort of a single theme, but it’s especially a problem if the movies you’re watching share the trait of “nothing really happens.” Worse still, this wave of indie films often shared prolific directors and actors, making the distinctions between movies even blurrier.
Thus, I made it my goal to identify and remember one distinctive thing about each film I watched. For example, The Overnight is the one where Adam Scott has a micro-penis, Northwood Pie is the one with a four minute pizza-baking montage, and Laggies is… well, I don’t remember anything about Laggies, which is probably related to the fact that I gave it such a low rating.
Anyways, The Adults, which is in that vein of film, has something that I will remember it for, though I must warn you that it occurs well into the third act, so proceed with caution re: spoilers. The film follows three quirky siblings who grew apart after the premature death of their mother but had been very close prior to that. So close, in fact, that they had wholly invented range of songs and voices and jokes and role-played characters that they used as a weirdo lingua franca with each other. The whole film shows them pulling out these wacky voices and gags trying to crack each other up, and as I watched, I kept wondering why director-writer Dustin Guy Defa spent so much time focusing on it.
And then I hit the climax of the film. Eric (Michael Cera) and Rachel (Hannah Gross)’s escalating tension reaches a boiling point, and we’re exactly at the point of the film where we’d expect them to get into a shouting match with each other. Sure enough, Rachel makes a barb at Eric, and I see Cera’s eyes light up with anger, and I prepare myself for the inevitable explosion of anger and… instead a squeaky cartoonish voice emerges. Eric describes his imaginary character committing a cartoonish act of humiliation against Rachel’s imaginary character. They subsequently have their emotional blowouts with each other not in a cathartic rage-a-thon but in goofy voices describing outlandish scenarios. It truly has to be witnessed to be appreciated and it makes the film worth it by itself.
Anyways, the film surrounding that elaborate punchline is solid as well, but nothing especially novel. The biggest draw is the cast: Gross is seething as oldest sister Rachel who resents her brother for abandoning the family in their time of grief, Sophia Lillis delivers a wondrously doe-eyed performance as the drifting baby sister, and Cera remains one of my favorite actors in the world, giving Eric a dark undercurrent that nonetheless pivots very well into the film’s kookier material.
Cera withdrew from the public eye sometime around the release of This is the End in 2013, and although he had a solid number of credits in a variety of projects over the next several years, none of them (minus perhaps a role in Twin Peaks: The Return) had much cultural traction. But 2023 has been a big year for him: he appeared in Barbie, a Black Mirror episode, and has two upcoming starring roles, including a Steven Soderbergh joint. What I really hope, though, is that he keeps making movies like The Adults, because he’s so good at being modulating between naturalist drama, acerbic wit, and goofiness.
The film’s B-plot centers on Eric trying to get a big poker win with his old buddies, and it’s mostly there as counter-weight to the family relationship material. If you really want to watch a post-mumblecore film that probes gambling addiction as a metaphor for yearning, check out Win It All instead.
As with the low-budget indie dramedies that inspired it, The Adults is a visually muted and unadventurous film, with lots of shallow focus and close-ups. It’s not ugly — Defa competently constructs his scenes most of the time, and there’s a late-autumnal coolness to the colors. But it’s mostly just there to stay out of the way of the actors. Joe Swanberg has shown these low-budget talky films can look really nice and use pacing and editing to their advantage; The Adults coasts by on adequacy.
I’m personally glad movies like this still get made even if they’re not best-of-the-year material. I will always watch them when I stumble upon them, and I will always try to find that one special thing to remember.