Adult Beginners [SXSW 2015]
Other // R // April 24, 2015
Review by Jeff Nelson | posted April 7, 2015
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Originality and revolutionary genre tactics can be great, but they aren't always required in order to craft an effective piece of cinema. Even the most unique pieces of filmmaking are often inspired by another feature. Director Ross Katz and writers Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive's Adult Beginners is a sweet little film that doesn't really explore new ground. Nearly every element has been seen several times over, which audiences will undoubtedly consider a fault. However, it remains to be an enjoyably light piece of cinema that will certainly find an audience who are looking for some chuckles and a feel-good story.

Jake (Nick Kroll) is a young, narcissistic entrepreneur who has recently lost everything on the eve of his company's big launch. With his entire life in shambles, he leaves Manhattan to move in with his estranged pregnant sister (Rose Byrne) and her husband (Bobby Cannavale) in the suburbs. Unemployed, he finds himself trapped with the task of being a nanny for his three-year-old nephew.

The first act of Adult Beginners is spent creating the world and introducing the characters. All of the cookie-cutters that you're expected are present, and the story goes in exactly the direction that you're thinking it will. Jake is forced to face his personal demons by moving in with his sister Justine, which will inevitably inspire some degree of change. Having not seen his sister in years, it's clear that there are tensions within the family. This elephant in the room is felt throughout the duration of the film, until we finally get to know more about Jake's past with his family. However, it's the relationship between him and Justine that truly shines. It's the most genuine aspect of the feature, and the screenplay often plays towards this strength. The sweetness is infectious, although their resentment towards one another occasionally surfaces. This makes for a conflict that feels genuine, especially next to some of the contrived and overly-dramatic plot progressions. Even with these moments, the film still manages to be an enjoyable watch.

The feature's title comes from Jake having to take his nephew to swimming lessons, although he has never learned how to swim himself, hence the title Adult Beginners. This is a smart piece of symbolism that is a successful piece of commentary on the human emotion of fear and how it creates hesitation. Jake and Justine are terrified of having to face many adjustments in their lives, but have decided to ignore them for several years. It isn't until now that they have been cornered with these troubles, and are forced to deal with them. It all ties back to the meaning of family, which the screenplay places a large amount of weight on. Despite all of the moving parts in life, a family is unchanging. We don't get to pick our families, but if we give them a chance, they just might surprise us. This is the clear message that Adult Beginners is trying to get across utilizing symbolism, character disposition, and even direct dialogue. Nevertheless, it's a theme that works rather well in this film.

However, this drama also happens to be a comedy. There are an abundance of attempts to develop a sense of humor throughout the picture, and it's rather effective. There aren't any huge laughs, but there are numerous chuckles to be had. Cox and Flahive's screenplay thrives with its sarcastic humor, which is primarily delivered by Jake. It's certainly funny to watch a narcissistic entrepreneur turn into a stay-at-home nanny, as he's finally forced to actually care for another individual. He doesn't have much of a nurturing instinct, and doesn't know how to do the simplest of tasks, since he usually just pays people to do them. These jokes work well with the sweet nature of the film's message. The balance between the two genres is fairly equal, and the transitions are quite smooth. There aren't any jarring passages to speak of, allowing for a relatively cohesive picture.

Perhaps the film's biggest strength is the cast. Nick Kroll displays that he's a true talent. Having been underestimated in the industry for quite a few years now, it's good to finally see him star as the leading man as Jake. His comedic timing is impressive and his dramatic delivery is on point. Rose Byrne is incredibly convincing as Justine. However, the film's magic truly shines when they're on screen together. They exchange dialogue in a way that proves to be both sentimental and funny. The majority of the drama can be found in the film's second half, which is where they are showcased at their best. Kroll is superbly relatable and Byrne is insanely sympathetic, making for a couple of strong performances.

While not very original, director Ross Katz and writers Jeff Cox and Liz Flahive have created an enjoyable feature. While one-dimensional, the characters are sympathetic, but it's the performances that truly make this feature what it is. Nick Kroll proves to be a good leading man, and Rose Byrne once again delivers a convincing performance, while still providing a certain amount of depth. However, the film's contrived second act feels like it's dramatically overcompensating when it already had a good thing going. Fortunately, the film manages to end on a high note that will undoubtedly leave audiences feeling good. Adult Beginners is an infectiously sweet story about the true meaning of family. Recommended.

Adult Beginners played at SXSW Film Festival 2015 on March 15th and March 17th.



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