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Snark and sarcasm rule the roost in 'The Adults,' a comedy about grown siblings

Hannah Gross, Sophia Lillis and Michael Cera play grown siblings in <em>The Adults.</em>
Variance Films
Hannah Gross, Sophia Lillis and Michael Cera play grown siblings in The Adults.

Michael Cera has been doing a lot of TV lately, but it's nice to see him back on the big screen for the first time in five years. You might have seen him steal a few scenes in Barbie as Allan, the discontinued Mattel doll briefly introduced in the 1960s as Ken's best friend. Cera's always been good at playing oddballs and misfits, to the point of being typecast, and sure enough, he plays another one in his new comedy, The Adults. But his character, Eric, is one of his more interesting roles. He's tricky and temperamental and hard to figure out — and so are his two sisters, Rachel and Maggie, whom he comes home to visit.

It's never explained why Eric has been away from his East Coast hometown for three years — maybe it was COVID lockdown, maybe something else. But things are clearly awkward between him and his older sister Rachel, played with a wonderfully sardonic edge by Hannah Gross. She lives in and takes care of the home they all grew up in as kids; their parents are dead.

In time we'll also meet the youngest and gentlest of the three siblings, Maggie, played by Sophia Lillis. Unlike Rachel, Maggie is delighted to see their brother back in town. But she's upset that Eric is only here for a short trip, mainly to see his old friends, and plans to spend just a little time with his sisters. He's even rented a hotel room rather than staying at the house.

The writer-director Dustin Guy Defa doesn't overload his characters with backstories. But he subtly suggests that all three of these siblings are feeling stunted and unfulfilled in their own ways. The details dribble out gradually: Rachel works at a local radio station, editing what she contemptuously calls "puff pieces." Maggie is a recent college dropout. And as for Eric, it's not entirely clear what he does for a living, if anything. He makes a big deal about getting home, but he winds up easily extending his trip — not to spend more time with his sisters, although he does, but to join his friends' nightly poker games.

Poker serves as a pretty good metaphor in The Adults, which is in some ways a movie about the art of the emotional bluff; it's about characters who keep hiding how they really feel behind a wall of snark and sarcasm. But there's more to their dynamic, too. As the story progresses, Rachel, Eric and Maggie begin reverting to a form of highly elaborate and eccentric role play from their childhood, often involving singing and dancing. At times their commitment to the bit is so extreme that you start to wonder if their parents were actors or improv comedians.

The effect of all this self-involved play-acting is funny, bizarre, off-putting and weirdly moving. After a while, you realize that it's only through this sophisticated-yet-childish language that the siblings can really connect and say what's on their minds. At the same time, some of their old gags and routines don't land the way they used to, which is poignant and relatable in itself. If you've ever had a relationship that felt like stale inside jokes were all you had left, you might know the feeling.

Through this role play, you see how these characters fit together: Rachel, the judgmental, responsible one; Eric, the prodigal brother and Maggie, the fragile glue that holds them all together. There's a wide-eyed Peter Pan quality to Lillis' performance as Maggie, underlining our sense of these so-called adults as overgrown children. Cera, with his gangly grace, makes Eric both infuriating and endearing. But the most memorable work here comes from Gross, whose mix of big-sisterly fury and melancholy has stayed with me in the months since I first saw the movie. She turns this often squirmy comedy into something that might just break your heart.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.