Sibling in-jokes — often first formed when our brains are still goofy and undeveloped, and honed through the hysteria of spending too much time with somebody who shares your DNA — are often the most absurd and abiding. The silly voices, the elaborate bits, the rehearsed dance routines, the specific style of patter that an outsider would find impenetrable. But what happens when you grow up, and a family tragedy rips you apart? What do you do when you feel obligated to stay in touch with the siblings you still love, but nostalgia for your childhood has suddenly become too painful a memory to indulge in?
Dustin Guy Defa’s “The Adults” is an emotional scream transposed through low-decibel vocal fry — an endearing sibling drama full of cringe comedy that lands a miraculous, unexpectedly poignant ending, seemingly out of nowhere. Despite the central trio holding each other — and by proxy, the viewer — at arm’s length for the majority of the film’s running time, cynical defenses are chipped away to raise up the sibling relationship as one of the most knotty and meaningful humans can have.
Michael Cera plays Eric, who is really just Michael Cera with a new name (he is also the film’s producer). Eric is back in the picturesque town he grew up in for a flying visit to see his two sisters, Rachel (Hannah Gross) and Maggie (Sophia Lillis), as well as an old buddy who’s just had a baby. The siblings haven’t seen each other for three years, and save for the occasional, performative phone call, Eric has deliberately created a chasm of distance between them, preferring to throw himself into his unspecified job in the unspecified city he now lives in.
Nobody knows your fears, your neuroses, your hang-ups, and your past better than the people you grew up with, and so if you were trying to be someone you’re not or avoid working through your feelings, it makes sense that your siblings are the people you would take special pains to avoid. But because of an absurd obsession with wanting to beat his old poker buddies and prove himself as reigning champ in his humdrum hometown, Eric ends up extending his stay; the more time he spends with his sisters, the more he realizes that the careful, ironclad distance he has created is at risk of falling apart, exposing the cavern of trauma housed between them.
The beady eyes, the nonexistent chin, the humpback triangle posture and the high-pitched register: Cera has built his career on being the human equivalent of an awkward silence, a walking punchline that seems to exist on a different cosmic plane of oddball charisma.
This persona, carved out of mainstream comedy roles in “Superbad,” “Juno,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and more, is by no means out of place in the low-key American indie, as already evidenced in Defa’s “Person to Person.” But while that 2017 feature felt a little rambling and overcooked, “The Adults” banks on its affably weird lead to make an astute statement about how depressing it is to go from being a funny, quirky guy to — seemingly without knowing it has even happened — a tragic and blundering sell-out, a sad sack in his flop era who creates black holes in conversations every time he speaks.
While at first even eye contact is elusive, over painfully tense arguments over a hoover, hidden jokes that turn sour and weird, and agonizingly cringe-worthy conversations, the three siblings edge toward something resembling a reconciliation. As the youngest who is desperate to recreate the shared, loving language of her youth, Lillis is a live wire with Duracell Bunny energy and warmth, a foil to Gross’ sardonic and gothy older sister. As they recreate the infantile exploits of their childhood — dancing in the garden, congregating gawkily at parties, going to the bowling alley, and taking a trip to the zoo — every restrained line of dialogue is an unsturdy branch, concealing a thousand knotted roots underneath the muddy surface.
It may feel a little too surreally awkward and plodding in its first hour. But as a sweet movie smartly attuned to the power of the weirdo bonds that bind us to our family no matter the geographical distance or emotional dislocation, Defa achieves a sledgehammer of an ending in which not a single word rings false or feels sentimental: a raw, sensitive, and true look at a family in flux with too much love to give and no tools to whittle it into something useful.
“The Adults” premiered at the 2023 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.