Dustin Guy Defa’s Dramedy With Michael Cera Is Charming Yet Sometimes Overly Gimmicky [Berlin]

Feb 19, 2023

To this day, I am traumatized by the notion I could have killed my little brother. Six years younger, we had an age difference primed to maximize annoyance, his constant nagging the spark for my first foray with untethered fury. The day he carelessly ripped a hole through the plastic pool I waited years to get was the final straw, and I hit him in the head with the biggest — and heaviest — branch I could find. I was nine; he was three. I still remember the shock; he still remembers the pain. 
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This little anecdote is to say communication doesn’t always come naturally to siblings. Despite regretting having caused the biggest, purplest bump I have ever seen sprawl out of another human’s head on my little brother’s tiny skull, sometimes I still have a burning desire to hit him with a massive piece of wood. This thorny dance between guilt and anger is the driving force behind indie filmmaker Dustin Guy Defa’s “The Adults,” a dramedy about a trio of siblings trapped within this tricky web of familial communications. 
It is easy to imagine Hannah Gross’ Rachel also wanting to hit her brother, Erik (Michael Cera), with a large wooden branch. She communicates this ever-boiling anger through a mix of cold stares and passive-aggressive silences, not exactly the warm welcome Erik expected upon returning to his hometown for the first time in three years. Still, there is plenty of warmth to be had within the arms of little sister Maggie (Sophia Lillis), the bubbly bridge between the two rancorous older siblings. 
Initially planning on a swift 36h trip, Erik extends his stay with each coming day. His desire to remain in town isn’t because he wants to spend more time with his sisters but because of far sketchier motivations: he is addicted to the thrill of winning the small-time poker game held at an old friend’s house. The man gets a kick out of being the big fish in this small pond, awkwardly punctuating each with the cringy giddiness of those who want it a little bit too much. 
Cringeness is at the heart of Guy Defa’s latest, the prickly interactions between the trio interwoven with painfully awkward musical numbers rescued from their childhood ambitions of becoming a performing group. They break into song as if no time had passed, the mundane quality of their lyrics dipping into the melancholia of small-town Americana. Their only attempts at open communication come either in musical form or through the tortuously cringy use of cartoonish voices they developed to accompany a series of (mostly British) characters.
It is only under this agonizing habit that the siblings can navigate the sinuous maze of feelings they tiptoe around, the infantile tactics lifting the heavy cloak of performed nonchalance. Whenever they timidly attempt to employ the same tactics to find comfort in stressful situations outside their fraternal bubble, the awkwardness of it all is exposed under an excruciating light, their theatrical ruse as painful within fiction as it is to those experiencing it on the other side of the screen. 
The tension of the complicated familial dynamics is broken by fleeting moments of contemplation, the camera lingering on quiet bodies of water, and static corn mazes. The autumn colors are reflected on the clothes styled by the trio, with Erik’s anxious hands finding refuge in worn corduroy and Rachel accumulating layers as if building armor. Maggie finds comfort in the practical fashion of her teen years, where she finds herself trapped due to grief. In this sense, she is a mixture of Peter Pan and Pollyanna, unable to welcome adulthood and pained by the weariness of constant confrontations. She is a sponge, too, soaking in the resentment and cruelty that lingers between her brother and sister. Sophia Lillis brings much-needed empathy to Maggie, her big green eyes at once pleading and hopeful. She is cleverly cast opposite Gross, superb in her embodiment of how loss seeps through one’s skin, eating away at their inside, pain morphing into anger morphing into catatonia. 
Sandwiched between these two great turns is Michael Cera, who rarely steps outside his usual beat in his delivery of Erik. The exception comes during one of his handful of poker nights when the actor confidently commands a monologue designed to be the film’s most memorable scene, predictable in its staging yet great in its presentation. Anchored by its competent trio of protagonists, “The Adults” would have been a lovely time if not for the overused mishmash of twee gimmicks, as nagging to watch now as a relentlessly annoying three-year-old brother. [B-] 
THE ADULTS, starring Michael Cera & Sophia Lillis releases worldwide July 4th. A brief trip back home turns into a longer stay when Eric (Cera) finds himself caught between catching up with his two sisters and conquering his old poker group.— Michael Cera Source (@PraiseTheCera) February 17, 2023

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