Every morning when I wake up, it always takes a second or two until I truly realise how my body is feeling on that particular day compared to other days. I fear the days I wake up feeling nauseous and every day I don’t end up vomiting for hours until I fall asleep from exhaustion is a good day for me. Just writing that sentence makes me feel sad. These last couple of years have been filled with unexplainable health issues that have had a huge impact on me and every time I’m reminded of how low the standards of my life have gotten, it leaves me simultaneously sad and angry. Is it fair? No, but then again life is not always fair.
Adult Life Skills, written and directed by Rachel Tunnard, stars Jodie Whittaker as Anna. She could be described as someone who is existing, rather than truly living after the death of her twin brother Billy (Edward Hogg). She’s having a hard time coping with the aftermath of her loss and has currently been living in a shed for 18 months in her mother’s garden. She works a menial dead-end job at an outdoor pursuits centre, frequently has imaginary talks with Billy and spends her free time doing short films starring her thumbs as astronauts in outer space. If you ask her mother (Lorraine Ashbourne), Anna dresses “like a homeless teenager” and early on in the film we see how she microwaves her underwear to try to dry them faster when she’s late for work. A week before her 30th birthday her mother gives her an ultimatum – Anna needs to move out of the shed. While Anna’s mother is often outspoken about her annoyance of Anna’s behaviour, Anna’s grandmother (Eileen Davies) is trying to be gentler towards the situation. Anna constantly tries to push the majority of people away so she can be by herself dreaming of the past. While Anna continues to have funny but often awkward conversations with Brendan (Brett Goldstein) who likes her, it’s the arrival of Anna’s old school friend that makes her self-imposed isolation impossible to maintain.
The film’s environment always has a wet feeling to it. No matter the weather, it looks grey, moody and the ground never looks dry. As someone who has spent the majority of my years living in the countryside, it’s very familiar. Her small rural home-village reminds me of my own (even smaller) village where I grew up. They have one big thing in common – it is not traffic lights that make you stuck in traffic but rather the cows that need to cross the street. Solely being in a place that small and intimate can feel isolating and something you might need to shield away from – preferably in a shed.
For me it was extremely easy to connect with Anna – and not solely because she’s played by the always so delightful Whittaker – but because I understand her aimlessness about her current place in life. Several times throughout the film you can see Anna’s facial expression going from exhaustion and disbelief to almost complete confusion about the fact that she’s still alive. I have felt for the past couple of years that my life has been put on pause due to something out of my control and therefore it was easy to connect with Anna whose own life has been on pause since her loss. I’m not comparing my situation with that of losing someone very close to you, but it is in the portrayal of Anna’s current troubling life I find a form of acceptance to my feelings in my situation. I think a lot of people can recognise themselves in feeling like life is on “pause” and that you’ve lost precious time – whether it’s because of bad self-esteem, being stuck in the wrong body, depression or something else that is tough.
When Anna is in her shed – called “Shed Zeppelin” amongst other names – she is surrounded by memories and objects from a simpler time; a time when her brother was still alive. Nothing bad seems to happen to her while she’s there and it’s her safe space in a world that is scary and unfair. She watches older films, like Rocky, probably out of the same nostalgia and comfort she gets when she watches the old films she did with Billy. They had a website where they showed their films, which were deliberately bad instruction videos for coping with life. However, sadly enough they never made a film about how to cope with a loss, so Anna needs to figure that out for herself. Judging by the look of it, they always made films together so now when one part of the duo is gone, Anna is left lost and alone. Anna, focusing on the past when Billy was still alive, is something that without a doubt consumes her present and might even disturb her future. When she has to confront the thought of her mother’s ultimatum – to leave the shed – she is forced to think about the “what now?” question in her life. The thing is, she isn’t ready for that yet and she doesn’t know how to get to that place.
At one point of the film, Brendan tells Anna that he thinks adults should get badges – reminiscent the one’s scouts get – for successfully doing adult life skills. Changing a car tire, sewing, sending something back at a restaurant and knitting is his examples of actions worthy of badges – I would add doing your taxes, being aware of your economic status, doing your laundry, cooking and maybe, above all, surviving. Having survived our teenage years should always result in a badge and continuing to survive when life is hard should be rewarded. When we’re young, people love to tell us when we’re on the “right track”. We get gold stars at school when we do well and relatives love to encourage us when we behave accordingly to expectations. In adult life, we don’t get these motivating pieces of evidence of our hard work but maybe Brendan is right and we should. Sometimes, when we’re contemplating whether life is worth fighting for or not, we might desperately be in need of a win to get by another day – and maybe a badge might be the way to go. At the end, when it’s Anna’s birthday, Brendan gives her a blue and orange badge with “Adult Life Skills: Lone Twin” embroidered on it.
When Anna meets Clint (Ozzy Myers), a young boy that dresses up as a cowboy, they form an unlikely but sweet bond. The more time she spends with Clint, it becomes obvious that she’s slowly starting to find a purpose. Clint, who is facing something similarly heart-breaking as Anna due to his mother being very sick, is just what Anna needed. He’s stubborn and often annoyingly persistent in the same way as a sibling can be, but he is also kind. He might be much younger than Anna, but they’re in a similar position – both clueless about the future and their place in it – and they need each other. At the beginning of the film, we see two red shoes separated from each other in different places, but at the end of the film – when Anna finds Clint after he runs away – we see the two shoes together. They found each other again, just like Anna and Clint found each other. Anna might not on paper be the first choice to babysit a child, but throughout her life, she has earned a lot of badges so that she can truly help Clint in his upcoming rough future. At the end of the film, she asks Clint to blow up her shed for her birthday.
There is a beautiful but deeply saddening part of the film when Anna looks truly happy and content for the first time in the film. She is dancing in a club like nobody’s watching and she looks carefree and happy while bathing in blue and orange hues – but suddenly Billy appears and it is like she’s reminded of everything all over again. It comes over her like a huge wave and her entire facial expression quickly changes. Isn’t she allowed to be happy just because of what happened? I think it’s a scene that can translate to a lot of people who have ever had to go through something hard. Sometimes I think I’m starting to feel better and I naively gain hope even though I should know better – and then, something changes, and I’m back to the beginning. Like a video game, it often takes a lot of starting over until you can progress to the next stage.
I don’t have a Clint in my life but maybe this film could be my version of him. Being in the company of both Anna and Clint, maybe that could help not only my healing but also others. My healing isn’t just about getting healthy and feeling good again, it’s also about stopping my feelings of guilt. I often feel an overbearing feeling of guilt since I, at every doctor’s appointment and exam, desperately wish for them to find out what’s wrong with me. Not solely because I want to start the process of getting better, but because not having a diagnosis is terrible and I often feel like my sickness isn’t real because I haven’t got one. The guilty part that makes me feel bad is how I continuously wish that my doctor will find something – while someone else somewhere else is doing the same exam wishing with their whole body that their doctor won’t find anything.
It’s easy to get stuck in the past when the present seems unbearable – but thinking about the past is only destroying the present and future. I can’t imagine what it feels like to lose a sibling. However, I do know how it feels to lose the person you used to be and having it be replaced with a depressed, uncomfortable, hurting and broken version of yourself. Having to say goodbye because that earlier carefree person will never exist anymore is another kind of heartbreak that is very hard to come to terms with.
To dwell and focus on the past – wishing for it to be different and thinking about the choices you should’ve made – is another form of self-hate that is simply working against you at all times. And when the world is already working against you, you shouldn’t work against yourself as well. Sometimes bad things in people’s lives can be due to factors that could’ve been avoided – but sometimes life just sucks.
“I wonder what my downfall is…”
“Being a dick?”
That is a part of a conversation Anna’s two thumbs are having at the beginning of the film. One of the thumbs has a happier smile while the other thumb is much more neutral and almost looks worried. There is never an explanation to these videos; Anna doesn’t show them to anyone and no one knows what they’re for. However, if you listen more closely to the conversations the thumbs have, it seems like the two thumbs are a version of Anna and Billy. In the beginning, when one of the thumbs asks what her downfall will be it could be – along with the answer from the other thumb – translated to Anna’s downfall in the film when she loses control and screams at Clint which leads to him running away. Furthermore, later on, one of the thumbs asks how long they’ve been out in space to which the other thumb answers “567 days”. If you search up how long that is in months, you’ll get 18.6411 months, which is more or less the same amount of time Anna has lived in the shed.
The film ends with Anna’s birthday party and Clint blowing up her shed. I never thought even in my wildest dreams that a scene with Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” playing in the background could make me somewhat emotional, but here we are! We only see the characters’ reactions to the shed getting destroyed along to the beat of the song. Then it cuts to Anna’s familiar setting for her thumb videos. We see a rocket ship exploding into the sun and we see how one thumb makes it out alive – now without her companion – and drifts away out of the shot. Anna is moving on and hopefully, I’m getting there soon as well. However, first of all, I need to blow up my metaphorical shed and preferably while making a ceremony out of it and celebrate everything I was – but more importantly – everything I might become.
by Rebecca Rosen
Rebecca Rosen has studied film for several years at university in Sweden where she currently resides. Besides film, she has also studied television and is currently deepening her knowledge of gender studies. When she isn’t writing or talking about all things film, she enjoys getting lost in foreign cities, playing video games and watching German football. Besides being a lover of Twin Peaks (both the band and TV series), she knows Wayne’s World 2 off by heart and will forever ugly cry to Call Me By Your Name. She’s still contemplating about the impossible question regarding what her favourite film is ever since a stranger asked her 10 years ago. She still hasn’t seen Titanic. Share you favourite films with her on her Twitter and Instagram.