Sunday, November 19, 2017

Coping, Honestly: Adult Life Skills

Jodie Whittaker in Adult Life Skills (2016).

One of the more interesting film festivals in the film festival-heavy city of Toronto is the European Union Film Festival (EUFF), featuring one film from each of the 28 members of the European Union. It’s actually a world-wide phenomenon with various countries and cities signing on at different times and not necessarily showing the same films. (Toronto’s edition, which runs Nov. 9-23, is the 13th here. But though the film fests in Vancouver – in its 20th incarnation – and Canada’s capital Ottawa – in its 32nd year – have been around longer, they’re not showing more than 25 films, which makes Toronto’s the more accurate representation of the EU film output.) Executive Director Jérémie Abessira works with local consulates and cultural organizations to book the films – often Toronto premieres - and then offers free screenings to Toronto’s filmgoing audience. A select number of tickets to each film can be booked online for a $10 fee but if you’re prepared to line up, it’s gratis. My experience is, except for hot tickets like the annual French entry, most people get into most of the films they want to see. Most significantly, as far as I’m concerned, these are always films made for an adult, discerning audience. In other words, no superhero movies here.

Since the UK is still technically a member of the EU, it was represented in Toronto with a touching comedy/drama called Adult Life Skills (2016), the directorial debut of Rachel Tunnard, who also wrote and edited the movie, based on her acclaimed 2014 short Emotional Fusebox. Extending shorts into features can be perilous – often there’s not enough story to warrant a full-length cinematic treatment and the result can be flabby – bu, despite some flaws, Adult Life Skills flows quite naturally and decisively. It revolves around Anna (Jodie Whittaker, recently announced as the latest – and first female – Doctor Who), who has retreated to a shed on her mother's Yorkshire property, in a depressive spiral caused by the death of her twin brother Billy (Edward Hogg), whom she was extremely close to, a year and a half earlier. But Anna’s about to turn thirty and her grieving mother Marion (Lorraine Ashbourne), perturbed by her daughter’s basically indolent lifestyle, has read her the riot act: the shed will be destroyed by the date of Anna’s birthday and she’ll be expected to find a proper flat to live in. Anna’s response, her usual one to anyone who challenges her, is to tell her mum to fuck off and do her damnedest to ignore the ultimatum. But the situation of an eight-year-old neighbour, Clint (Ozzy Myers), whose mother is in hospital with cancer, and the reappearance of her old party-girl friend Fiona (Rachael Deering) – prior to Billy’s death her best friend – ensures that things can’t stay the same, however much Anna wants them to.

Jodie Whittaker in Adult Life Skills (2016).

Sometimes evoking Bill Forsyth’s classic 1981 Scottish comedy Gregory’s Girl, with its cast of eccentrics and off-kilter presentation, Adult Life Skills is full of quirky, sometimes disturbing and often funny details, from the clever pop-culture riffs emblazoned by Anna on her shed (|Shed Zeppelin," "Dawn of the Shed"), to the way Anna displays her troubled emotions, whether she’s making videos with her thumbs acting as characters – that’s more believable than it sounds – or talking to the dead Billy about her life and views. Whitaker is superb here.  Anna is also trying to figure out what childhood friend Brendan (Brett Goldstein), handyman, realtor and would-be writer, is all about. She’s always thought he was gay but now senses some sexual interest in her, which confuses her, especially as she can’t fathom why anyone would be attracted to her in her current state. Whittaker and Tunnard make Anna into such a convincing, touching creation that you find yourself riveted by her every second on screen. (I think I’ll start watching Doctor Who again now that she’s set to assume the iconic role. I abandoned the show when Christopher Eccleston quit.) And her perpetually fraught relationship with her mother, who’s grieving Billy’s death as deeply as Anna is – not that Anna is paying attention to that relevant fact – is one of the most believable ones I’ve ever seen on screen. It helps, I think, that we never find out exactly how Billy died. Tunnard is smart enough to realize it’s not really important – a tragic early death for whatever reason is painful enough – and also that it draws in the audience more if we have to try to suss out the particulars of his passing for ourselves.

Not everything works in the movie – Anna’s job, which seems to be working in an employment agency/caregiver role, is ill-defined, and the portrait of her environment seems a little underdeveloped. (Anna and her family appear to be living in the middle of nowhere but there are trains running into the city.) Also I could have done without some of the movie’s treacly sentiment, concerning Clint and the overdone portrayal of Anna’s ribald grandmother Jean (Eileen Davies), a distinct contrast with her daughter: she is more conservative but unlike everyone else in the film, she comes across as a caricature. And Tunnard wraps the film up a bit too neatly, as Anna’s millstone birthday approaches. But the usual and so-welcome English attribute of raw, honest emotion depicted on screen carries the movie through to its poignant, uplifting ending. Adult Life Skills is clearly a woman’s point of view tale but it doesn’t shortchange the (few) men in the movie. Brendan is an especially appealing character, attracted to Anna precisely because she is weird. I don’t know how long England will remain in the EU – that obviously depends on the pace of the Brexit negotiations – but Adult Life Skills is a solid indicator of the country’s continuing cinematic abilities.

The European Union Toronto Film Festival is now progress and concludes this Thursday November 23. More information can be found on their website

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where on October 6 he began teaching a course on fact based movies and why they often take liberties with history. He also finished teaching a course in October on The Exciting and Provocative Cinema of Israeli in London, Ontario.

No comments:

Post a Comment