Giving the first deeply layered performance of his career (his best to date), Michael Cera is extremely good in Dustin Guy Defa’s smart, moving, and ironically titled “The Adults”.
Cera is Eric, a thirty-something who has come home to visit his sisters, moody and distant Rachel (Hannah Gross) and Maggie (a completely endearing Sophia Lillis). The three siblings are mourning the loss of their mother, each dealing with it in their own quirky and awkward ways.
By returning, Eric is forced to deal with the wake of pain and unanswered questions he left behind. Maggie is happy to see her brother, her face lighting up when he is around. Eric’s presence annoys Rachel, who is still angry at him for leaving; her negative feelings towards him enhanced due to an unshakable depression caused by a recent break-up. As Maggie confesses she may not go to college, Eric decides to stick around to be closer to his siblings (though he won’t let his emotions show how much he wants to be in their presence.)
Eric is also dealing with a gambling addiction and is laser focused on finding a local game. Through old acquaintances, he finds one. The poker game is awkward, as no one truly knows Eric anymore and when he loses, his personality turns vicious.
Michael Cera uses his soft voice to good dramatic effect. Eric is a man who keeps everything inside and no one is allowed to see his regrets, which begin to haunt him once in the presence of his family. The actor underplays nicely, showing his range and adeptness at drama. Cera is completely natural and there isn’t a false note in his performance.
“The Adults” doesn’t ask the audience to like Eric, but he isn’t an unlikeable character. One hopes that he will learn to strengthen the bond with his sisters and lose the emotional disconnect he has constructed over the years.
Hannah Gross and Sophie Gillis are equally good. Each actress brings honest emotion to their characters, giving their relationship a lived in feel. There is no question these two women have been through it together. With Eric’s return, their strengths are both weakened and rejuvenated. Gross and Gillis find the depth inside their respective characters, tapping into the balance in their the awkwardness and anger.
During the film’s inevitable confessional moment, the actors and screenplay get everything right. The conversations are hard-hitting and the emotions earned. As the scene plays out, Eric, Rachel, and Maggie do an impromptu dance to Men at Work’s “Overkill”. The lyrics, “I can’t get to sleep, I think about the implications, Of diving in too deep, And possibly the complications”, become a poetic rendering of the three siblings.
Tim Curtain’s camerawork isn’t showy. Through carefully framed medium shots that exude a naturalistic aura, the cinematographer captures the dreariness of the small New York town in which the characters exist, while representing the trio’s despondency towards the adult world and their place in it.
Defa’s screenplay is smart enough to not crumble to the pressure of wrapping the drama up with a tidy ending where all is set right. By film’s end, characters are still broken (but on the way to healing) and some personal issues are not fully resolved. It is the bonds between the siblings that get the biggest boost. The connections of Eric, Rachel, and Maggie are solidified forever while their love for one another exists as their combined strength.
Being an adult is hard work and family relationships are even harder. Dustin Guy Defa’s “The Adults” is perceptive in its understanding that no family is perfect and everyone has past hurt, but the feeling of coming home after time away can be healing. The warm presence of those who love us wipes away the miles of life, returning us to who we truly are.
As the credits rolled on this moving film, I felt confident that, together, Eric, Maggie, and Rachel will be okay.
Written and Directed by Dustin Guy Defa
Starring Michael Cera, Hannah Gross, Sophia Lillis
R, 91 Minutes, Variance Films