NPR logo Tribeca Notebook: The Oddball's Journey

Tribeca Notebook: The Oddball's Journey

Jodie Whittaker as Anna in the film Adult Life Skills. Jo Irvine/Courtesy of Getty Images hide caption

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Jo Irvine/Courtesy of Getty Images

Jodie Whittaker as Anna in the film Adult Life Skills.

Jo Irvine/Courtesy of Getty Images

One of the best things about covering film festivals — like the Tribeca Film Festival, where I'll be for a couple of days — is seeing people's work with very little context around it. By the time films are released in theaters, particularly when they're being heavily marketed, I usually know a lot about them. I know something about what to expect, I know a good bit about the directors and actors, and very often, the film has been on various planning calendars for months.

But particularly with smaller or midsize festivals (Tribeca is lower in profile than Toronto, for instance), I often run into things I've never even heard of until they show up in the film guide. Not only is this a useful reminder of just how much art is being made at all times of which even professional critics are unaware or vaguely aware, but it's a chance to meet a piece of work with almost no expectations at all.

Adult Life Skills is the first feature from writer-director Rachel Tunnard, who first made a short called Emotional Fusebox that was nominated for a BAFTA award. She calls the short a "pilot" for Adult Life Skills, which is having its world premiere here at Tribeca.

The film stars Jodie Whittaker — whom I knew as the grieving mother in Broadchurch and whose other credits include Attack The Block and Black Mirror — as Anna, a woman about to turn 30 who's living in the shed in her mother's garden. Mom is about ready to kick her out, but Anna mostly stays holed up in there, making low-fi web videos where she draws faces on her thumbs. She has an outgoing best friend who wants her recover from what turns out to be buried grief, an awkward maybe-suitor, a plain-spoken grandma, and a sad child living next door who craves her attention even as she only reluctantly gives it to him.

There are pieces of a lot of familiar stories here: a little About A Boy, a little Young Adult, a little Bridget Jones even. More than that, though, Adult Life Skills pulls from the deep well of the Quirky Oddball Picture, recalling everything from Juno to Submarine to Moonrise Kingdom. There is a quality to it that feels not necessarily cliched, but familiar. And what it amounts to in that regard is a genre film.

It only makes sense that just as superhero films draw on other superhero films, and romances on romances and mysteries on mysteries, stories about the quirky oddball's journey would influence each other and grow their own tropes. The composition of the shots that often isolates the oddball traveling across the screen, the editing rhythms, the frequent use of what High Fidelity called "sad bastard music" — it would be easy to see the patterns emerge and to disengage on the theory that you've seen the film before.

But as with any genre film, the trick is execution. Whittaker is so good in this role, so believable and sympathetic, that even the expected beats that perhaps shouldn't work can work. Similarly, the press notes say that there was originally to be no potential love interest until Tunnard came across Brett Goldstein and wrote him a role as an offbeat old friend of Anna's who gives the best explanation of the ending of Grease that I've ever heard, by the way. His role is small enough but valuable enough that it makes sense. It may be an outgrowth of that fact that because the film was conceived without a romantic element, the romantic element doesn't seem like the driver of Anna's story but the result of it, and that's a good thing.

That's not to say Adult Life Skills doesn't flirt with driving itself into a ditch. Let us be frank about children for a moment: putting a moppet in your movie is a dangerous thing, particularly if that moppet is in acute need, as the neighbor kid Clint is here. It can feel like a fat thumb on the scale, forcing emotion from the audience and even blackmailing it out of other characters in unnatural ways. But Ozzy Myers, whom Tunnard says she found at a school in Leeds and who had never acted before, is so unforced as Clint, and his chemistry with Whittaker is so good, that they pretty much pull it off. Here's hoping experience with acting doesn't ruin his acting.

One of the curious things about recognizing a movie's general style as fitting within your experience of films generally or festival films in particular is that when something happens that isn't quite what you're expecting, it jumps toward you. There is a moment late in the film in which Tunnard unexpectedly cuts to an embrace between Anna's mother (Lorraine Ashbourn) and grandmother (Eileen Davies) that instantly takes both beyond being essentially the frustrated, disappointed mother and the frank, wise grandmother. It communicates an enormous amount about what's been going on under Anna's nose that she hasn't seen because she is so withdrawn and so sad. That's the kind of little spin on the formula that makes a genre work stand out.

I can't imagine a person experienced with offbeat English-language films of the last ten years not seeing much that's familiar in Adult Life Skills, but it's a lovely movie with some very good performances and it makes some very good choices. As, eventually, does Anna.