Six years after directing his last feature, Dustin Guy Defa returns with The Adults, a film of complicated shared histories and gradually revealing inner lives. With his relatively sprawling Person to Person, Defa followed a wide array of characters over five interweaving storylines. This time he focuses on one family and, closer still, on an unmistakable feeling: that of moving out and growing up, only to return home and realize all that delicately assembled adulthood was merely a façade. Playing out across a leafy town in upstate New York, The Adults follows a trio of siblings as they reunite: the brother who went away and the sisters who did not.

This is new territory for Defa. Warmth was in short supply in his debut, Bad Fever. It was absent altogether in his script for The Mountain. Shot on fuzzy 16mm, Person to Person allowed him to show a more benevolent side to his cinema. Flicking between calloused, stunted emotions and moments of genuine tenderness, Adults lands somewhere in the middle. Michael Cera gives one of his pricklier turns as Eric, a single, mid-30s guy with a taste for poker. A good player but a sore loser, Eric, we learn, moved to Oregon three years ago and hasn’t been back since. His younger sister, Maggie (Sophia Lillis), is thrilled (and there is a lovely rush of DP Tim Curtin’s camera when they meet that perfectly expresses all her bottled-up joy), yet somewhere in her glance you sense a note of caution. Eric’s relationship with Rachel (Hannah Gross), eldest of the three, is frostier still. A radio producer, though she’s blasé about the work, Rachel now lives with Maggie (a recent college drop-out) in their family home. As soon becomes clear, both parents are gone and the house was left to Rachel and her alone. Did that decision drive a wedge between sister and brother? Either way, it has never been acknowledged.

Curiously, The Adults‘ most obvious flourish is also its most exacting. With communications breaking down between them, Maggie begins reintroducing characters and songs they used to perform. Gross (a Tisch theatre grad), Cera (a low-key Second-City alum), and Lillis (who appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when she was 12) all cut their teeth in improv and on stage; Defa mines those skills to give life to the shared history he has created for them. As Maggie instigates, Eric follows suit, but Rachel will take some convincing. They take a trip to the zoo, go bowling, and drink Bloody Marys in the early afternoon, and it’s in these old modes of play that Defa fleshes out their complicated sibling dynamic.

Whether or not the thought of all that theatre-kid energy makes you anxious, the cast’s commitment to the bit is infectious. An effervescent presence here, even before a full musical number in the backyard, Sophia Lillis gives a performance of incredible nuance and variety (and maybe a sneak peek of what we might see from her in Asteroid City). In one of his spikier roles, Cera is just as good: his movie-critic bit is solid gold; his Tony Soprano even better; and he’s great value at a card table. (In what at first appears like an entertaining aside, Eric’s string of poker nights gradually reveal something deeper.) Though given fewer points of theatricality, Gross’ aloof despondency proves no less watchable. And beneath all those layers of performance and unspoken trauma, this at-times-excruciating, at-times-hilarious film finds a beating heart. Switching back to digital, Defa forgoes the easy warmth of 16mm for a harder-won kind of beauty––just look at his many aching close-ups and how raw the emotions appear in all that unforgiving light. It’s coarse to the touch but The Adults is a tender film. That those moments come in flashes only makes them all the more profound.

The Adults premiered at Berlinale 2023.

Grade: B+

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