By Angelo Muredda
The sharpest gag in Dustin Guy Defa’s The Adults, a dramedy about compulsive joke-tellers who do comedy routines to distract from their severe emotional dysfunction, might be the title, which prods at the childhood regression of three nominally adult siblings some years following the death of their parents. Disparate and aimless into their twenties and thirties, Eric (Michael Cera), Rachel (Hannah Gross), and Maggie (Sophia Lillis) aren’t coming of age so much as playacting the part of adults while recycling canned bits from their youth, self-soothing as they wait for someone more mature to tell them what to do. Though The Adults is at times diminished more than it’s enriched by its echoes of other texts about wayward children skulking back to their childhood home, as well as family narratives about faded talents with arrested development (including the same-named series wherein a teenaged Cera reads as precocious as he is dissipated here), the film has enough of Defa’s own peculiar, spiky tenderness to set it apart. Meandering and repetitive by design, it reveals itself as an incisive look at how a certain type of person endlessly rehearses adult emotions to avoid fumbling their way through the real thing.
The story centres on Eric’s belated return trip from Portland to his hometown in upstate New York, a short jaunt that gets extended by the entanglements of family and poker games. Defa opens on an anticipatory shot of Eric’s empty hotel room, waiting to be filled by little more than his laptop, Bluetooth speaker, and wispy self, with Cera’s own frail frame and barely there peach-fuzz beard economically sketching a character who’s more of an outline than a person. From his noncommittal phone calls as he paces around the room, we get the sense that Eric, too, is waiting, buffering as he comes up with the real reason for why he’s in town—whether it’s to see his friend’s new baby, as he says; to reclaim his status as a small-town poker champ, which seems to be animating him; or to reconnect with his damaged sisters, who he initially avoids. Despite that reluctance, he’s soon wholly pulled back into their orbit, prolonging his stay while the trio, estranged for three years at least, hit up a succession of local diners, zoos, and house parties while doing everything in their power to avoid having a straightforward conversation about what’s bothering them.
Rather than indulging in the emotional breakthroughs of that more conventional brand of American independent family drama about generational trauma, Defa maintains a bemused distance from his characters, adopting the same quasi-documentary gaze toward their halting interactions as he evinces toward the animals we see in a mid-film trip to the zoo. These particular specimens behave strangely, as when Maggie aloofly clicks her pen against her brother’s forehead while explaining why she dropped out of college after her first semester, or when Eric strikes a motherly tone toward her by affecting a raspy Marge Simpson voice, committing to the bit as he advises her about the importance of seeing her education through. Later, even the more serious Rachel, a radio producer, adopts the same voice in a work meeting where she offers harsh feedback on a treacly documentary. It’s as if the siblings’ compulsion to performance is a communicable disease, infecting even their work lives. The real family inheritance, Defa suggests, isn’t the home Rachel claimed after their mother’s death, but this tradition of alienating others by couching home truths in characters and performances that only they understand, lest a real feeling slip by unmediated.
Defa has some fun with the way his protagonists’ Brechtian filters for life simultaneously create distance between themselves and others and help them connect in their own misbegotten way. If the Marge voice basically works on Maggie (we’re left to work the possible Simpsons reference out for ourselves), it doesn’t land with Rachel’s work colleague, reminding us of an earlier moment at a diner where Eric’s extended fictionalization of a patron’s life inspires her to snap back, “How far are you going to take this?” And if the siblings’ impromptu musical revues and skits pleasantly recall their shared history as, in Maggie’s words, “wannabe singers and child performance artists,” they aren’t much of a hit at parties, as they discover when Eric burrows further and further into an inappropriately realistic Tony Soprano impression when trying to explain to a crowd that he’s just been robbed at gunpoint of his poker winnings. “Was it my delivery?” he asks Maggie when another extended bit about public radio elicits pained smiles rather than laughs, in a charming moment of self-awareness that underscores how the glorified coping strategies that play in one’s home don’t necessarily translate outside of it.
As his characters test the viability of these performances outside of the proscenium of their shared childhood, so too does Defa test our tolerance for the familiar contours of this story and these relationships. Eric and Maggie’s curiously intimate fraternal bond, for instance, recalls the memory plays of Tennessee Williams, while Rebecca and Maggie’s bullying but mutually supportive relationship has something of the charged dynamic between the worldly goth Theodora and the neurotic, overgrown child Eleanor in The Haunting (1963)—not least because of how Defa dresses Rachel in the androgynous uniform of dyed jet-black hair, black trench coat, black vest, and severe black turtleneck. Sometimes the allusions are more direct, as in the party set piece that anchors the film’s last act, which finds the siblings finally getting their choreography in sync through a line dance to Men at Work’s “Overkill” (recalling the Madison dance from Bande à part , in staging if not so much in the details).
All these references and more threaten to crack Defa’s delicate portrait of adult children in stasis, but there is some insight to his conceit of broken children sticking together as a unit where they fall apart on their own through a body of shared textual reference and games. It’s instructive to consider Defa’s modest, insular work here against his comparably sprawling previous feature, Person to Person (2017), which tracks the amiable zigzags and intersections of a diverse group of New Yorkers over the course of a single day, and which similarly ends at a house party. Where that film is as expansive as the unexpected connections its characters make across the city, The Adults is hermetically sealed, folding back in on itself as the siblings shrink to their most basic family unit even when in a crowd. That staidness is grating at times, but purposefully so. If Defa gets mixed results in trading the capacious for the cramped, and changing his patron saint from Robert Altman to Noah Baumbach (whose The Meyerowitz Stories  seems explicitly evoked in the siblings’ bespoke show tunes), he still acquits himself well enough, as his characters sometimes do, by fully committing to the bit.
Dustin Guy Defa, US