Okay, so, this will be my third post on Eulogize This. I have my own website, and on said website I frequently post recommendations of things I’m into at the moment. For me, writing for Eulogize This has a similar purpose, but the difference is that here I am not recommending something that I really like and think you might like too. Instead, what I am trying to do is pinpoint (as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s) exactly what I think makes a specific artwork truly great. So it’s more than just the what, the where, the when. It’s about the how, and the why.
And this time, instead of choosing a controversial film or a much respected book, I am choosing a new film I saw in the cinema only a few weeks ago. And that in itself makes this a slightly tricky post to write, because I only saw it once, and so I have to rely a good deal on my notoriously shit memory. It’s also tricky because it’s so recent: will I still like this film in a year? Will I still remember it in a year? Will I be reminded of it and wonder why I made such a fuss about it? Sometimes it’s hard to be sure.
But with this film I am pretty darn sure. What I like about it might change, and I can definitely imagine I might find more little things that I don’t like about it with each viewing. But I’m confident that this film really is something special.
And the film is called Adult Life Skills.
Rather than summarise the plot, this trailer gives you a pretty good idea what, where and when.
In case that link above breaks, it’s about a young woman, played by Jodie Whittaker, weeks away from her 30th birthday, who lives in a shed at the bottom of her mum’s garden, and makes films of her thumbs talking to each other.
I’ve seen it described as a ‘quirky indie drama’, and particularly as a ‘great little film’. I think neither description is accurate, and the former suggests a film that is basically a series of kooky personality traits wheeled out over some ukulele-heavy soundtrack for an hour and a half. (Sadly, ‘quirky indie drama’ so often translates as ‘some good ideas but very quickly becomes insufferable’.) But I particularly take issue with the latter. If the same film was set in North London, and all the female characters were male and vice versa, I don’t think this would be seen as a ‘little film’, great or otherwise. I think it would be seen as an important film for the British film industry to be championing.
But that’s all I want to say about that. Because I realise that there’s lots I could say about how I feel this film has been underrated because of its gender balance and its geographical setting, but that would not belong in a Eulogize This post. It would belong in a category I would call: ‘everywhere else on the internet’. Equally, I could write about how much better I consider this film to be than recent homegrown Oscar-bait like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything (both if which I found okay, but deeply unimaginative film-making). But again, I think that would belong somewhere else, and I think comparing it to other films would take focus away from how good this film is on its own merits. Instead, from my area of expertise as the kind of person who will still watch absolutely any film so long as it means I don’t have to go to bed, I want to write about what I think makes this film great.
And I want to do this by focusing specifically on three aspects of filmmaking: form, character, and story. (A bit more clinical than I would normally do but, like Liam Neeson said in The A-Team movie, overkill is underrated.)
Each art form has its own language. For example, stories that revolve around characters’ thoughts and feelings and that break a lot of the conventional rules of storytelling might well be suited to a novel form. Or a story that revolves around snappy dialogue and big kinetic action scenes like car chases and gun battles might best be suited to cinema. Whereas a story that is almost entirely characters talking to each other might work best if told on the radio. Generally, I find that stories work best if they work with, rather than against, the natural language of the art form.
In order to really explain what I mean, here is an episode of the wonderful YouTube series Every Frame A Painting by film editor Tony Zhou. This one makes the point that Edgar Wright is using the language of his art form in a way that his contemporaries are not.
I think there’s one line in that which cuts right to the point here:
“So if you’re a film-maker, work on this: the frame is a playground, so play!”
(By the way, the Every Frame A Painting series is just wonderful, and worth of its own eulogizing! And if you want a good elaboration of what’s wrong with the ‘Oscar-bait’ I was talking about above, check this out:)
In amongst the ‘great little film’ comments I have also seen people say that director Rachel Tunnard is ‘a talent to watch’ (quite a few critics have used the phrase ‘it’ll be interesting to see what she does next’), and I would agree that I very much felt that when watching this film. Sounds obvious if I love the film though, right? Not necessarily. Film is a famously collaborative medium: the writer has to come up with a good script or no one comes on board, and then the actors will change the dialogue, and the editor will decide the timing, and the producer may cut stuff in order to get the right running time or certificate. The director has to ‘direct’ all of these people, but ultimately it’s a collaboration. So if it’s really good, it could just be a lucky combination of really good talent, and there’s no guarantee any of them are going to hit those heights again.
The reason why so many people are singling Rachel Tunnard out, I think, is because not only is she the writer/director of this film, she is also the editor, and comes from a background of editing. And I think that really shows.
Right from the start I had the sense that this is someone who knows how to frame a shot, how to imply an emotion or a thought in the visual language of film without explicitly telling you to feel or think it; someone knows how long to leave a joke for it to be funny, and how long to leave a shot for you to really understand what a person is experiencing. This is someone who can make a shed at the bottom of the garden seem like a magical cottage.
In other words, this doesn’t look like someone who just wanted to produce a televised play on a bigger budget. This is someone that clearly understands cinema.
Some of the most inventive directors (e.g. Akira Kurosawa, David Lynch, Joel & Ethan Coen) edit their own films, and these are films that have a very distinctive rhythm to them. The timing just feels better judged, and thus the emotion seems more real.
So for me, this is the first thing that indicates a film that is bigger on the inside: a confident, clear, imaginative and unique use of the cinematic form.
But I think it’s the treatment of character which is this film’s secret weapon.
Rachel Tunnard employs a tactic so seldom used by writers, but if you choose to use it, and you get it right, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll make a masterpiece. Seriously.
Are you ready? Are you ready for the magic ingredient?
It’s simply this:
You make all of the characters as intelligent as you are.
You never make a character stupid for a joke (sure, they can do stupid things, but that’s not the same as being stupid). If you’re making a sitcom then fine, but a film-length drama and the audience will just start to detach and get bored, because we can all feel it’s not real.
Also, you never make your hero do something unusually stupid to advance the plot (unless the point is made that it was unusually stupid). If the staircase to the pitch dark basement looks creepy and the police officer went down there and now won’t answer when you shout, don’t fucking go down there! None of the cinema audience would, so why would your hero?
And lastly, you don’t make your hero seem more heroic by placing them in a world of idiots.
This is what for me makes the film a cut above the standard ‘quirky indie’ fare. Because (and this might just be my prejudice) it seems to be a bedrock of quirky indie films particularly that the indie heroes are supposed to be unusually intelligent, sassy, funny, ironic, edgy and sensitive compared to the dead-eyed drones around them.
Watching the skilled characterisation in Adult Life Skills reminded me that actually… people in real life tend to be vastly more intelligent than even the intelligent characters in stories. Why? I don’t know. Perhaps because writers find dumb characters easier to move around the chessboard, so to speak. Perhaps it’s harder to plot real people than cardboard cutouts, but it’s worth it if you get it right.
For example, the hero of Adult Life Skills, Anna, has key relationships with a best friend called Fiona, a secret admirer called Brendan, and a young ‘problem child’ called Clint. But the relationship dynamic I was particularly drawn to was the endless argue-triangle between Anna, her mother and her grandmother. As the story unfolds, you see the way they actually care about each other, but you also understand why they drive each other to despair.
The central relationship, though, is between Anna and a character who isn’t there. The trailer doesn’t make this clear (and it’s not a spoiler – it’s in all the reviews) but we learn that Anna, and the whole family, is trying to cope with the grief of losing her brother, who she was clearly besotted with. This is what takes this premise from quirky into genuinely moving. And it’s this relationship which left me unable to speak for five minutes after the film finished, for fear of a wet snotty tear explosion.
Which brings me, finally, to the story. This is a story that’s ambitious in an extremely understated way. If you’ve ever found yourself staring at a blank page trying to start writing a story, you might appreciate what a challenge it is to be… well, not massively boring, to put it simply. It takes time for a story to tell you what’s going on and why it’s interesting, and getting your audience to stay interested through that first part is surprisingly tricky. Which is why the basic premise of the story counts for a whole lot. If we know it’s a story about magic, or melodrama, or sex, or horror, or something larger than life, then we’re usually happier with that initial trudge through exposition.
It takes a particular skill to get and hold an audience’s attention by ignoring all these things, and focusing on ordinary life. You not only have to be really technically good at explaining what the hell is going on as quickly as possible, but you need to make ordinary life seem beautiful. Glamorous, even.
Now, it’s about time I offered a few disclaimers.
First of all, I lived in a room above my dad’s garage for much of my 20s, so Adult Life Skills was always going to be a story after my own heart. I am also the kind of person who, if I chose to live in a shed, would cover it with signs saying “Shed Zeppelin”, “Dawn of the Shed” and “Right Said Shed”. (Indeed, I live on a narrowboat now, and the only reason why I haven’t fitted a pink neon sign on the side saying “Girls Girls Girls” is because I haven’t had time to figure out the wiring.) And the films that I made with my best friend were pre-internet, but mullet wigs and ironic yet affectionate use of hair rock were definitely featured.
But aside from my personal bias, I have always had a particular respect for artists who can make ordinary life seem interesting, beautiful and glamorous. It’s very difficult to do. You can’t just rely on regurgitating the horror, comedy or science fiction clichés you loved as a child: you actually need to study what life is really like and have opinions on it. What I love so much about this sort of film is that when I walk out of the cinema, blinking into the daylight, I am in the same world that I just walked out of. Except that now I see it in a different way. I haven’t just enjoyed some fantastic escapism. Instead, I’ve been taken deeper into the real world. And I have a new sense of what’s important.
One reason why I loved this particular film so much was because I thought the story was actually about the things in life that we actually need (not that we think we need) in order to be happy. Friends, family, community, a place to live, a job that doesn’t drive you insane, the basic stuff. And romantic love is important, but it’s not always the be-all. I wouldn’t say that this film is in any way an instruction manual for how to be happy; instead, it shows the kind of struggles with it that I think most of the population go through. And that’s why I feel it’s a much more profound film than your more obvious Oscar winner.
So yeah, basically. See it, if you can. If you did like it, tell your friends about it. (I’m not in any way affiliated with this film, I should add — although I did get into a debate with the director on Twitter over who consumes the most caffeine.) Because I for one would love to see more films like this, particularly in Britain but also anywhere. I’d like filmmakers to know that this sort of film will always do well.
And sorry, here I go again comparing it to other films. But when I think the ‘great little film’ bit I’m reminded of that famous line from Sunset Boulevard. Norma Desmond is told “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big!” “I am big!” the former film star replies. “It’s the picture that got small.”
This is not a great little film. This is a great big film. It’s the other films that got small.