LOS ANGELES — When director Dustin Guy Defa set out to make a movie about isolation, grief and familial strife, he wasn’t quite cognizant of the unmistakable ways in which the effects of the coronavirus pandemic were informing his script.
Now, however, he concedes that “The Adults,” which hits select theaters Friday, is loaded with obvious inspiration from some of the flashpoints of 2020 — the year he wrote it.
“In hindsight, it definitely did,” Defa said of the pandemic’s influence. “I definitely was thinking about the importance of family, even if you have strained relationships.”
“The Adults,” which premiered in February at the Berlin International Film Festival and was subsequently picked up by Universal Pictures, stars Michael Cera, Sophia Lillis and Hannah Gross.
It tells a poignant story of three siblings with dead parents as they reckon with how to relate to one another now that the simplicity and innocence of childhood is behind them. While visiting his sisters and hometown for the first time in years, Eric (Cera) grapples anew with how the stressors and variances of life have informed his relationship with Rachel (Gross) and their youngest sibling, Maggie (Lillis), who recently dropped out of college.
“They’re still those people but they’re not those people at the same time. They’re trying on old suits that don’t fit anymore,” Defa said of the characters’ futile efforts to revive the Marge Simpson impressions and Men at Work choreography that served as familiar sources of comfort in their youth.
While the picture that emerges could perhaps be seen as cynical, figuring out how to navigate those evolving relationships is a task relatable, on at least some level, to everyone with a sibling — even if that attachment is a healthy one.
“It’s so funny how particular that relationship is, especially once you get older and you have your own life,” Lillis said during a press junket at the Tribeca Festival in June, musing about her bond with her own brother. “It kind of shifts a little bit from this very familiar thing of being a part of their life completely into only being a part of it.”
“The Adults” is the kind of low-budget, character-driven independent film that attracts actors like Cera and Gross, who had both worked with Defa in the past. Cera starred in his similarly touching, albeit more lighthearted, “Person to Person,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and was eventually distributed by Magnolia Pictures.
“I, like most actors, am drawn to rich material and Dustin’s a great writer. The script was so full of wonderful moments and scenes and characters,” Cera said of the director's latest film.
Gross, who first worked with Defa a decade ago and has since acted in a handful of his short films, also cited his writing and direction as reasons for why she keeps coming back to his projects.
“Nostalgic sounds demeaning but there is something that feels — there’s a reverence for actors and for characters that feels very much of another era of filmmaking,” she said.
It’s an impressive feat that a film as austere as this one was able to be made amid the pandemic — they wrapped shooting days before the first wave of the omicron variant hit, narrowly avoiding production shutdowns — let alone given a theatrical release by a major studio.
“It is rare that a movie like this, I think, gets an opportunity to even get financing,” Cera said. “I felt lucky to be Dustin’s friend and have access to reading his work as he’s developing it and happy to have a chance to go and work on it.”