You want to make a producer’s eyes do the dollar sign dance, make the star of her or his low-budget film a STAR after that indie film has finished shooting.
The folks behind the Brit dramedy “Adult Life Skills” can be excused for thinking they hit the jackpot. A year after their twee little character piece was finished and in the can, its star, Jodie Whittaker, barely-known for work in “Venus” and “Attack the Block” and co-starring in TV’s “Broadchurch,” became the first female Doctor Who.
And you know what they say in the UK. There’s famous, and there’s “She’s the first woman cast as The Doctor” famous.
Whittaker stars as Anna, an under-employed grunt at a seen-better-days outdoor activity “resort” (kayaking, sailing, etc.) in West Yorkshire. The work isn’t fulfilling, so she copes by running a vlog made up of thumb-puppet science fiction mini-movies she preps, shoots, stars in and edits in Shed Zeppelin, or Right Shed Fred — her fortress of solitude back of the garden of mum’s house.
She dozes off there most nights, forgetting to bring a change of clothes, shocking the mailman with her near-nude sprints back to her room to the scolding of her no-longer-indulgent mother (Lorraine Ashburne). Grandma (Eileen Davies) may think she just needs a man, that “You’re not really living right now.”
Mum is more blunt, about the “bloody thumb videos” that her about-to-turn-30 daughter labors over, a woman acting like an immature teen, dressing “like a homeless teenager.”
“You said you’d be OUT by now!”
Leaving Anna printouts of online listicles — articles listing “Things you should stop doing by 30” — isn’t helping.
“I’m not moving out until I’ve worked out what I’m doing!”
Anna is clumsy — the sort who wouldn’t realize that drying an underwire bra in the microwave is a good way to blow up said microwave. She’s clueless about the flattering attentions of her colleague Brendan (Brett Goldstein). Because she just assumes he’s gay.
“Why does everyone think I’m gay? I’ve got a soft voice. And I wore pink shorts — ONCE!”
But the overweening impression this “homeless teenager” pushing 30 leaves is of a woman stuck. She used to do those videos with someone else. That someone else is gone, and she’s lost.
A series of new characters promise to give her a chance to come unstuck. Lively, working class world traveler-pal Alice (Alice Lowe) returns to town, to Wilburwood Outdoor Pursuits Center. She notices Brendan’s attentions and tries to kick start Anna towards…something.
Mum is determined to move Anna into an apartment. Brendan’s other gig happens to be as a rental property agent.
And a little boy given the unlikely name “Clint” (Ozzy Myers) moves in next door. He dresses up as a cowboy, just like Anna’s missing co-conspirator on the videos. And his mother is very, very sick.
Plow through the thick-thicker-thickest Yorkshire accents and “Adult Life Skills” and Whittaker have an undeniable charm. Tragedy broke Anna, and Whittaker gets across that she was fragile to start with. She doesn’t have a lot to offer, but eager-to-please Brendan sees something and wants to give her credit for what she does know — DIY video special effects, wit, her ability to pull off “cute” as rumpled and despairing as she seems most of the time.
Brendan suggests that the world should hand out “merit badges,” like the ones teenage Girl and Boy Scouts get — for “Adult Life Skills.” Anna’s got just enough of those to be of use to a sad, odd little boy who is facing something not unlike the crushing event that broke Anna.
She still sees her former partner in crime (Edward Hogg), still has conversations with him. They used to debate the thesis that “All teddy bears are nihilists.” Not that such discussions, then or now, help her get unstuck.
Whittaker gives Anna a quirky vulnerability that suits editor-turned writer-director Rachel Tunnard’s needs, here. There’s a lovely humanity to all the characters, who are funny enough, but never broad enough to be caricatures.
Three generations of women under the same roof creates comedy.
“I can’t believe you’re my MOTHER.”
“LET’s get a BLOODtest!”
But you feel love and concern in both older women’s view of Anna. It’s there in her friends and indulgent colleagues, too. She’s not good at much, but going through what she’s been through means we won’t be sacking her just now.
The main reason people check this out will be Whittaker’s new role as Doctor Who. And she doesn’t disappoint. She gives this walking-wounded woman a hint of the coquette she never realized she was, a smartness informed by sadness and — with a little boy she’s utterly ill-qualified to baby sit, much less mentor — a purpose.
We don’t get merit badges for having “Adult Life Skills,” being able to feed, clothe and house ourselves, eat with chopsticks or balance a bank account. But Whittaker’s Anna makes the case that maybe Brendan’s right. Maybe we should. Sometimes, we all reach that low point where we could use a win, any win — credit for managing just well enough to get by.
That goes for the movie about her, too.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, adult situations, profanity
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Lorraine Ashburne, Alice Lowe, Rachel Deering, Brett Goldstein, Edward Hogg
Credits: Written and directed by Rachel Tunnard. A Screen Media release.
Running time: 1:36