“The Adults” Deconstructs the Musical to Probe the Nature of Performance

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Genre is a cursed thing. Dustin Guy Defa’s new movie, “The Adults,” isn’t really a musical, but the performances of music and dance that figure in it are both more dramatically essential and more distinctively realized than those in many films commonly thought of as musicals. For that matter, much else that Defa does in the movie displays his idiosyncratic originality—notably, the way he evokes a family saga in intimate, present-tense terms. “The Adults” is, for starters, an apt and poignant title for a movie about characters stuck in the memories and dreams of youth. It’s the story of the return of a prodigal son to his home town, where his two sisters still live, and the tumult that results. Defa (who also wrote the script) tells this tale with a muted, quietly shambling sense of searching and longing. Because the three siblings’ thwarted ambitions involve musical performance—of an unusual, nichey sort—the movie foregrounds song and dance, thereby expanding the idea of what a movie musical can be and of the role of performance in our lives.

Michael Cera plays Eric, a thirtyish guy who checks into a nondescript hotel room in the town bearing a small carry-on bag and a tight pack of lies. By phone, he informs his sisters that he’ll be spending his first evening in town with his friend Scott, and tells Scott that he’ll be spending it with his sisters. Instead, he tracks down a friend named Dennis (Wavyy Jonez) in the hope of arranging a spur-of-the-moment poker game.

The elder of Eric’s sisters, Rachel (Hannah Gross), who works at a local radio station, is the family’s reality principle: when the siblings’ mother died, five years ago, Rachel dealt with the resulting practicalities and held on to the house, where she now lives (alone). The younger sister, Maggie (Sophia Lillis), a recent college dropout—course requirements cramped her creativity, she says—works in a café and is planning to quit without a clear sense of what she’ll do next. For both sisters, their late mother is still a virtual presence, and their grief remains keen. They haven’t seen Eric in three years and reproach him for being out of touch, and for his seeming indifference to their emotional trials.

Eric left home about eight years ago and now lives in Portland. (He doesn’t even specify which state.) He never says what he does for a living, but describes himself as a frequent traveller who therefore gets good deals on hotels—that’s why he’s not staying with either sister, he says—and free rescheduling from airlines. (This latter detail becomes dramatically important, as he gets deeper into the town’s poker scene and postpones his return flight, something that he claims he’s doing in order to spend more time with his sisters.) Eric’s coyness regarding his way of life is a strategy on Defa’s part, allowing viewers to assume that Eric is an itinerant small-time gambler who has come home only as a last resort. Certainly, his conduct at the town’s poker games suggests why he might quickly wear out his welcome wherever he goes. It isn’t just that he crudely rejoices at winning other players’ money but that he wins it with an aggressive, theatricalized shtick of bluffing and provoking and distracting and digressing—not just a cultivated strategy but the mark of the performer that he evidently used to be.

The siblings’ backstory of loss and estrangement is dispensed in cleverly calculated tidbits of dialogue that are among Defa’s more conventional moves. The centrality of performance to that story emerges gradually. Having breakfast in a diner, they notice the shapely legs of a longtime waitress (played by Karen Lynn Gorney, who co-starred in “Saturday Night Fever”), and her appearance spurs Eric and Rachel to bat around some comic riffs. These grow increasingly outré, hinting at a family relationship to comedy that’s not just a matter of kids’ spontaneous joshing but more like the professional comedians’ delicatessen conclaves in “Broadway Danny Rose.” Then, when brother and sisters repair uneasily to Rachel’s (i.e., to their mother’s) house, Maggie breaks the weighty mood of the fraught reunion by delivering a bouncy patter-song and a matching dance routine, and Eric and Rachel soon join in—a well-rehearsed number that they’ve dredged from memory and that prompts Rachel to jibe, “I assumed our days as a wannabe trio of singer-songwriters and child performance artists were long behind us.”

At its core, “The Adults” is a movie about what happens to born performers when they’re no longer performing—and what happens to their artistic habits and drives when they have no ready outlet, no stage. Namely, they become deceptions, bluffs, and shtick. Eric, in particular, remains desperate to get laughs, but for all three the ingrained habit of passionately crafted theatrical artifice proves to be their most authentic way of relating to one another. The film is dominated by their antic contrivances. As the siblings kill time at a local zoo, Eric joins Maggie in a song about animals that, he says, they first performed there years earlier. When Maggie tells Eric that she has dropped out of college, he interrogates her about her plans in a clownish accent with a cardboard hat on his head. He tries to connect with Rachel by roping her into a routine involving a pair of characters called Mopey-Mopey and Charles; when they end up airing their differences in a fierce argument, they do so as those characters, flinging the kinds of hyperbolic gross-out insults that they might have slung onstage. A mark of tenuous reconciliation occurs at a party, where the trio executes a crisply choreographed dance routine (the movie’s choreography is by the actress Tallie Medel) that, for good measure, offers an extended visual quote from the celebrated line dance in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders.”

Like the three leads in Godard’s film, the siblings here aren’t principally dancers; they dance as they sing, with a studied approximation that offers touching glimpses of effort and intention in its gaps. It’s a manner of musical performance that’s continuous with the three stars’ remarkable and unusual acting. Cera, one of the unsung heroes of the modern cinema, bears the spirit of that modernity in his faux-diffident manner and his papery voice; as Eric, he speaks in an understated monotone that renders even the slightest inflection and gesture implausibly intense. Gross plays Rachel with a similarly narrowed but fervent expressive range, and Lillis (who also has a prominent role in Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City”) endows Maggie with a tamped-down sparkle, a dormant impulsiveness that Eric’s presence jolts back into action.

Defa and his actors display their greatest audacity, inventiveness, and conceptual power in the self-aware scenes of songs, dances, and comedy. A thought experiment: imagine songs and dances from your favorite classic Hollywood musicals, but stripped of their instrumental accompaniments, leaving only singers singing and dancers dancing as they might have done on location. Now imagine that the performers are not full-fledged singers and dancers. In “The Adults,” the wry and vulnerable simplicity of the musical numbers and the comedy routines suggests not just a realistic musical but an anti-spectacular one; the antics mesh with the drama not merely at the level of tone or style but at a conceptual one.

Defa draws from his actors an introverted naturalism that bears the mark of a post-mumblecore aesthetic, and the vision of performance that unfolds here touches on the very nature of contemporary independent film. He launched his career in connection with that movement and extended its range of subjects and tones, as in his first feature, “Bad Fever,” from 2011, about a painfully unfunny comedian (it’s on the Criterion Channel), and in the great short film of hectic New York street life “Lydia Hoffman Lydia Hoffman,” from 2013, also featuring Gross (unfortunately not streaming). In all these films, performance is vital to the construction of identity. And this is not a matter of insincerity, as if shtick were masking a hidden core of authenticity; rather, performance emerges as the very essence of social life and of self-recognition. The main subject of this cinema, created by young filmmakers, is seeking a place in the world by enacting the self that will claim it. For Defa’s adults, who have already lost their place and themselves, reconciliation and rediscovery pass through extravagances of art and imagination. The modesty of Defa’s tone belies the power of his vision. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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