Los Angeles Times
Stories of families and their complicated dynamics spring from a seemingly bottomless well, and can come to feel similar and uninspired. That’s not a problem with writer-director Dustin Guy Defa’s latest film, “The Adults,” a warm, wry dramedy that finds fresh resonance and insights from the story of three siblings each trying to move forward in their own way.
The film keenly captures the awkwardness of returning to your hometown as an adult — the mix of emotions that arises from revisiting old places and seeing former friends, causing one to take stock of the distance traveled (or not). All that can be a lot when you’re just trying to run an errand.
Eric (Michael Cera) returns to upstate New York partly to see an old friend’s new baby and partly to visit his two sisters, Rachel (Hannah Gross) and Maggie (Sophia Lillis). Rachel still lives in the house that used to belong to their dead mother, while Maggie lives nearby. Slow-burning resentments, unspoken issues and unprocessed grief immediately bubble up between them. Eric anxiously keeps saying he is going to cut his trip short, but once he falls back in with some local poker games, his compulsive gambling drives him to stay longer, even if that’s not exactly how he explains it to his sisters.
Though the film is largely driven by Cera’s knowing, unsparing performance, both Gross and Lillis are also given plenty of room to develop nuance. Lillis, as the youngest of the three, most desperately clings to their old dynamics, hoping somehow that will bond them together anew, while Gross’ Rachel needs to move on. They have a series of voices and characters that they do for one another, a self-contained world that is both comforting and suffocating. (Both Rachel and Eric unconsciously slip into their voices with other people outside the family, and the results are less than optimal.)
The three of them eventually have an argument at a party that finds them battling it out in their oddball voices, a scene that is perhaps the film’s greatest, most unsettling moment, and most directly gets to Defa’s point about how it can be a struggle to hold onto what you love about someone, while also finding room for growth. The scene transitions into them hijacking a dance floor for a number set to Men at Work’s “Overkill,” borrowing a bit of choreography from the famous dance number in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders” — a nod that is startling for the depth of its emotional understanding.
“The Adults” also features some strong poker-playing scenes, Eric revealing more of himself behind his cards than he does in actual conversations. Cera crafts a persona at the table that is flaky and unnerving, and not without its complications. These scenes add a nice bit of tension to the story, serving as a counterpoint to Eric’s taciturn moments with Maggie and Rachel.
With filmmakers such as Greta Gerwig, Chloé Zhao and Barry Jenkins moving from the margins of the industry into mainstream success, one can hope there is a place for someone like Defa to reach a wider audience as well. He has long been in the one-to-watch ranks of rising filmmakers — the Criterion Channel is currently streaming his distinctive two earlier features and numerous shorts — and his quiet, sensitive storytelling, economical visual sense and keen facility with actors have only continued to develop. In Defa’s exploration of family with “The Adults,” a restless soul seems to have found a home at last.
MPA rating: R (for language)
Running time: 1:31
How to watch: Now in theaters