For as long as there has been independent cinema, there have been protagonists who aren’t quite ready for adulthood. From “Slacker” to “Frances Ha” to approximately 78 percent of rejected Sundance submissions in any given year, there’s a time honored tradition of filmmakers finding inspiration in those looking to squeeze a few more years out of their adolescence.
But with each passing film about an artsy type who can’t get their shit together, the pressure on the next filmmaker to justify the existence of their belated coming-of-age story increases. When your audience has seen these tropes as often as we have, you have to offer something more than “wow, turns out adulting is really hard!” Unfortunately, “Adopting Audrey” falls short of that standard. M. Cahill’s new film about a woman who puts herself up for adoption in her early thirties is too unintentionally strange to be an effective drama, but too determined to be one to succeed as a comedy. The result is a drab retreading of well-worn beats without much interesting substance to show for the effort.
When we meet Audrey, it’s immediately clear that her existence leaves a lot to be desired. Floating through life in upstate New York, she works a miserable job at a call center (that she’s soon fired from), lives in a sad apartment (that she’s soon forced to vacate), and gets most of her human contact from an utterly unremarkable fuckbuddy (who soon breaks up with her). Estranged from her family and tired of the vagabond life that led her to hold seven jobs in the past two years, she finds herself at a crossroads, armed with nothing more than the realization that her current approach isn’t working.
Audrey’s one source of joy is watching cute animal YouTube videos on her phone each night, and the algorithm eventually shows her an ad for something called adult adoption. The trend allows young adults to seek a second set of parents to help guide them through the challenges of adulthood. Thinking she has nothing to lose, Audrey throws her hat into the ring.
After a few unsuccessful interviews, she meets Sunny (Emily Kuroda) and Otto (Robert Hunger-Bühler), two remarried widows looking to expand their family. Or at least, that’s what Sunny is looking for. She meets with Audrey without telling her stereotypically gruff German husband that she wants to adopt an adult, assuming that he’ll come around once she introduces them.
It would be a stretch to say the plan “works,” but it goes far better than it should have. Otto doesn’t quite understand the idea, but can’t find a reason to object to it either. They agree to “adopt” Audrey for a six-month test run, though it’s never quite clear how anyone (including the audience) is supposed to benefit from the arrangement.
Audrey doesn’t live with her new “parents,” but frequently shows up for dinner with Sunny and Otto (and his aging mother) and helps with some household chores. Eventually, she and Otto make plans to build a backyard treehouse for his grandchildren. The project leads to several allegedly humorous scenes that resemble a scrapped CBS sitcom pilot with the laugh tracks removed, as well as some father-daughter bonding between Otto and Audrey.
When Otto isn’t going comically apeshit about steaks being undercooked at a barbecue or doing a weird Chevy Chase impression as he gets sawdust in his face, he finds time to listen to Audrey’s problems and offer some wisdom. We learn that Audrey blames her failure to launch on the fact that her pet chicken was run over by a car when she was eight years old, and Otto provides some tough love as he encourages her to move on from her two decades of poultry trauma. She also loses a finger and gets it reattached at some point, but that’s neither here nor there. Few things are truly resolved, but both Audrey and her parents end up finding their lives slightly improved by the experiment.
In a meandering, character-driven film, a compelling protagonist can cover a multitude of structural sins. Unfortunately, “Adopting Audrey” doesn’t have one. Not only are Audrey’s career and personal life going nowhere, but she’s not devoting the lost energy to anything else either. She shows no ambition (her solution to losing her job is finding a second set of parents!), demonstrates few real skills, and mostly squanders the opportunities that she does get. She doesn’t have enough of a personality to make her aimless wandering seem entertaining, nor has she faced a serious enough challenge to generate much sympathy. In the end, you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone felt compelled to give this slice of her life the cinematic treatment.
None of which is to say that Jena Malone is bad in the titular role. Quite the opposite! The actress finds a way to inject some movie star sparkle into an utterly unremarkable character, elevating the film into something that often borders on watchable. Her performance is both a testament to her charisma and a chilling reminder of what the movie could have turned into with a less competent star.
Much like its eponymous protagonist, “Adopting Audrey” makes no attempts to set the world on fire. Cahill demonstrates minimal storytelling ambition, filling the 90 minutes with standard shot-reverse shot dialogue and sitcom-esque establishing shots. And the film never quite figures out what story it wants to tell, fluctuating between attempts at serious drama and something that, for lack of a better word, could probably be described as comedy. In its best moments, “Adopting Audrey” recognizes how hard it can be to fit all of the pieces of your life together to form something coherent. Unfortunately, the film suffers from the exact same problem.
Vertical Entertainment will release “Adopting Audrey” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, August 26.