It’s fitting that Whitesnake’s hair-metal classic “Here I Go Again” closes out “Adult Life Skills,” as writer/director Rachel Tunnard’s film is a cheesy rehash of numerous stunted-adolescent dramedies. This story of an English woman struggling with adulthood on the cusp of her thirtieth birthday dispenses requisite quirk and bathos, but its lack of originality is paired with an even more disappointing dearth of laughs. Theatrical viability for the winner of the Nora Ephron Prize at the 2016 Tribeca fest seems narrow, though no doubt at least a few moviegoers have yet to outgrow its brand of profane, idiosyncratic mopiness.
In an unnamed rural English town, Anna (Jodie Whittaker) copes with the lingering grief over her twin brother Billy’s death by making elaborate space-travel movies full of homemade sets and starring her thumbs, whose happy/sad countenances (drawn on with magic marker) denote them as surrogates for Anna and her departed sibling. Anna makes these DIY opuses in a shed in her mother Marion’s (Lorraine Ashbourne) backyard, a residence that she decorates like a clubhouse, from its toy-centric figures and decorative cut-outs of David Hasselhoff and Patrick Swayze, to exterior signs that designate it as “Shed Zeppelin” and “Dawn of the Shed.”
Anna is, in a certain sense, no different than the man-children played by Will Ferrell, except that “Adult Life Skills” casts her refusal to accept responsibility and get a life — which also involves a disinterest in dating, no matter the interest shown by strange co-worker Brendan (Brett Goldstein) — as symptomatic of not only childishness, but of sorrow over Billy’s demise. That the loss of her beloved twin has given Anna an identity crisis would be completely understandable if she resonated as a real person. However, “Adult Life Skills” is so infatuated with its protagonist’s whimsical behavior and creations (including the silly videos she and Billy made, and which she maintains by frantically renewing their website) that it’s hard to take her seriously as anything other than an overgrown clown — a state of affairs that defuses Tunnard’s stabs at gravity.
Anna’s stasis is shattered by both Marion’s ultimatum that she move out by the time her birthday arrives, and by her budding relationship with Clint (newcomer Ozzy Myers), a young neighbor who disrupts her sulking after he’s forced into her care by his ill mother’s hospitalization. Wearing a cowboy outfit and constantly firing his cap gun, Clint is an unhappy kid who takes to Anna’s “sad and angry” attitude even as his warm feelings for her begin to temper her more hostile impulses. They’re a rather familiar May-December weirdo duo bonded by loneliness, fear and hurt, and their off-kilter rapport feels as strained as the film’s attempts to interject some profundity into the proceedings via offhand existential questions raised by Anna’s thumb movies.
“Adult Life Skills” was expanded from Tunnard’s BAFTA-nominated short, and it frequently feels like it, with its story — also concerned with Anna’s sex-obsessed grandmother (Eileen Davies), and her warm, then contentious, friendship with back-from-travelling-the-world pal Fiona (Rachael Deering) — padded out with various incidents of little consequence. Even more vexing are sequences in which Anna spends time at a forest creek speaking to the imaginary ghost of her brother (Edward Hogg), who appears in a snorkeling mask and wet suit, and whose presence pushes the film into excessive cutesiness.
As the pop culture-referencing, non-sequitur-spouting Anna, Whittaker radiates believably messy immaturity, as well as the heartache lurking beneath her pom-pom-hatted, disheveled-clothes exterior. No matter the material’s formulaic clunkiness, she exhibits a poised sense of her character’s rage and distress. Tunnard’s fanciful visual flourishes are equally assured, especially with regards to slow-mo close-ups of Anna temporarily sweating out her fierce, desperate misery while dancing at a nightclub.
The soundtrack’s sensitive indie rock cuts, on the other hand, amplify the mood of twee mushiness, despite the fact that a series of recurring rewinding noises speak, cannily and urgently, to Anna’s desire to look backwards. For the most part, the film is similarly content to repeat the past, all the way through to its predictable liberating-feel-good wrap-up.