The logline of The Adults, Dustin Guy Defa’s follow-up to Person to Person (2016), does not appreciably differ from that of a prototypical Sundance movie. Eric (Michael Cera) returns to his childhood hometown for a weekend to catch up with his two sisters, Maggie (Hannah Gross) and Rachel (Sophia Lillis), but finds himself extending his strategically short trip in order to play at a series of poker nights which he becomes desperate to win. During his stay, the siblings confront some deep-seated family issues. One might think, for instance, of the Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig vehicle The Skeleton Twins (2014), in which estranged, suicidal siblings reunite after years apart, and which climaxes with a lipsynced dance sequence that melts away emotional barriers. Indeed, The Adults similarly builds to Eric and his sisters doing a choreographed routine at a party — and whether the scene reminds one of a Sundance climax or, say, the famous dance sequence in Godard’s Bande à part (1964) may serve as an index of one’s overall response.
Band of Outsiders would, in any case, be a decent title for Defa’s film, which continually prevents the viewer from identifying with any of the three siblings. The opening scene sees Eric’s impressively methodical procedure of checking into a hotel, but it quickly becomes clear that his sense of ritual is more childishly stubborn than responsible. His interactions with his sisters, meanwhile, introduce us not just to the usual sibling rivalry, but also to the private games and in-jokes that the three established growing up, which are unusual in that they all involve some degree of theatricality and performance. Together, the three have an apparently extensive repertoire, developed when they aspired to form a roving performance troupe. They also have several cartoonish alter-egos which they put on at key moments — something like a set of imaginary friends whom they embody rather than engage with.
Across the film’s compressed timeline, we see these personas emerge only intermittently — but when they do, they are invariably attached to unresolved issues from the siblings’ childhood. Trouble is, whenever they try to settle these issues, they find themselves unable to take each other as genuine. They find it impossible to relate to each other in a way that doesn’t depend on some performative mask. The main tension between the siblings is something like a game of chicken — except that swerving means breaking character, and breaking character is the ultimate sign of weakness. As in Eric’s poker games, winning means knowing how to properly call a bluff.
The main issue with The Adults, then, is not that it doesn’t have an interesting concept, but that it doesn’t do enough with it to justify its general abrasiveness. The in-jokes and musical performances are all presented as alienating and airless, which is clearly by design: they are meant to constitute a closed space which only the three siblings have access to. But the repetitive structure Defa employs, which intensifies but does not vary the core dynamic, results in character behavior that isn’t productively obscure so much as incoherent. The Adults closes on a note that is meant to be unreadable — neither clearly optimistic nor pessimistic. Much like the film as a whole, though, it mainly comes across as lazily ambiguous.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 8.5.