Wolfgang Kohlhaase, a prolific German screenwriter from the former East, once told me that cinematic realism was to him like the view out the kitchen window of one’s childhood home. What struck me at the time was the precision of that image: what one, as a child, saw and understood of the world from that intimate vantage point. And the way that those early impressions remain lodged within us, sacred, as we age, the truest part of our beings. After a nearly 70-year career, Kohlhaase passed last October, just a month after the world lost Queen Elizabeth II, whose almost century-long presence on the world stage, linked our own time to the interwar lives of seemingly distant relations and to antiquated values and traditions. History is carried by humans, the stories we tell and remember, and, cinematically, in the images and sounds we pass forward. Sometimes the changing world is particularly palpable. 

Be it in the pink pipes running throughout Potsdamer Platz, the Berlin International Film Festival’s signature post-wall venue, signalling the need for renovation; or the ripped open, subterranean guts of the multiplex Cinestar – a once beloved Berlinale networking node and year-round venue for flashy world premieres; or the symbolic recruitment of Steven Spielberg, a Queen Elizabeth of filmmaking in the Hollywood tradition, into the hoary ranks of festival Homage recipients – his autobiographical retrospection on his cinephilic coming-of-age in The Fabelmans (2022) and a selection of his greatest hits a reminder of my own generation and our collective childhood, punctuated by one Spielberg film followed by another. Cue a John Williams ode to E.T. (1982).

Peering out at the world as an adult reveals, however, more haunting visions than an alien returning home. The 73rd Berlinale had a note of loss, trauma, and grief that could be felt everywhere from the first wave of Ukrainian war documentaries to ruminations on the pandemic’s toll to several films with complexly layered family constellations. In the Competition, Lila Avilés’s Tótem and Estibaliz Urresola Solaguren’s 20.000 Especies de Abejas (20,000 Species of Bees) gave prominence to children’s perspectives on, respectively, the death of a parent and gender fluidity. Zhang Lu’s Bai Ta Zhi Guang (The Shadowless Tower) set the moment of intergenerational conflict and internal reckoning in middle age. 

Zhang Lu’s Bai Ta Zhi Guang (The Shadowless Tower)

But one of the most elegantly constructed films of loss and coming-of-age at this year’s festival could be found in the Encounters section. Dustin Guy Defa’s The Adults appeared, at first, to have a disarmingly simple premise: a 30ish older brother (played by Michael Cera), who has been away for three years, returns on a short visit to his Hudson Valley hometown, where he reunites with his two younger sisters (played by Hannah Gross and Sophia Lillis). Almost from the start, after meticulously arranging his hotel room as a remote office, Cera’s character Eric begins lying. He lies to his friends about why he cannot see them that first night. He lies to his sisters about his time and his intentions. He seeks out a poker game through an old acquaintance, and immediately the spectator becomes privy to Eric’s duality and deception. Ultimately, he is a character who lies to himself or, more aptly, cannot be truthful to himself and those he loves. Sparring with the older of the sisters, Rachel (Gross), his former comrade in childhood play, and realising that the younger Maggie (Lillis) craves something like fatherly support, Eric’s façade begins to crack. Try as he might to remain removed and disentangled from his siblings and their shared grief surrounding their mother’s death five years earlier and the unexplained absence of their father – his resolve falters.

Defa, a director with longstanding New York indie credentials and a hint of, dare I say, Woody Allen-esque wit in more innocent times, is also the writer and co-editor (along with Robert Greene) of the film. I first encountered him as an actor in Onur Tukel’s Richard’s Wedding (2012) and Matías Pineiro’s Hermia & Helena (2016) and as a director through the uncharacteristically experimental, non-fictional short Declaration of War (2012), which consists of U.S. members of Congress applauding George W. Bush’s declaration of war on terror for an exaggeratedly long duration. We are of a vintage. Yet although Defa has made two prior features, Bad Fever (2011) and Person to Person (2017), and comes out of a generously multihyphenate mumblecore-era talent pool awash with Swanbergs and Deckers and Safdies, his particular configuration of cinematic gifts has flown, thus far, below the radar of its value. 

Person to Person

What makes The Adults so compelling is the way in which Defa’s attention to character development and family relationship dynamics as a writer translate into the textured, layered performances of his three leads. If, structurally, Eric’s affinity for and slight addiction to poker, serves to comically string out his brief sojourn, the game, which famously requires the control of appearances, also provides ample opportunities for Eric and Cera-as-Eric to vary the levels of sincerity in their poker face. Eric, in a sense, is an actor, and Cera is a brilliant one, whose still boyish looks carry with them past iconic performances like Paulie in Juno (2007) and Evan in Superbad (2007), but also the potential of vulnerability just below the surface of a comical veneer. 

Conversely, Hannah Gross, whose acerbic Rachel, is the sibling most tied to the family home, struggling to make its mortgage payments and vacuuming its rooms, benefits from finally having time written into her features. Far from her beginnings in Matthew Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker (2010), she offers a new depth that comes with age and experience. Rachel does not simply welcome Eric back into the fold. She honours the chasm of estrangement between them. Sophia Lillis, soon to be everywhere and currently in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves (2023), emanates a more authentic youth and earnestness, an important contrast to the other actors. After all, Maggie, is the one trying hardest to salvage and repair their broken bond. Early on, she initiates a performative mode of communication, crossing over from the silence and tension of unspoken anger and sadness to childhood games, voices, impressions, and song-and-dance numbers. All three characters recognise this mode and use it to ask and probe and convey and seek and implore; its artificiality is at once more comfortable than the oversized adult roles they’ve been dealt and more familiar and binding. In their performances-within-performances the characters still belong to each other in their awkward present. They are still part of an intimate familial culture – its history and memory – that has outlasted a parental framework.

Much has been made of millennials’ struggles both with authentic emotions and with the traditional benchmarks of adulthood, but Defa’s approach to The Adults’ sibling constellation has none of the self-ironic, wink-wink dismissiveness of the term “adulting.” He is dead serious about the tragic impasse below his characters’ perfectly honed sarcasm and deadpan humour. And by focusing so intently on the three of them, he elevates the dramatic appeal of sibling relationships to “love stories” in their own right. What the film captures so well is the unique intimacy of a shared childhood. And in the hands of Cera, Gross, and Lillis, who all possess the dexterity, playfulness, and self-control to walk a tightrope between scripted goals and improvised nuances – a monster voice, a choreographed dance, or a Buster Keaton impression become fascinating dramatic minefields. Will this performative mode accidentally reveal too much? Or generate new strife? 

Ultimately, it becomes a source of renewal, perhaps best demonstrated by Cera at one of Eric’s poker games. Enamoured not only of winning a card game, but also of winning over his audience, Eric realistically recounts a sad, Shakespearean story of a father’s untimely death and an uncle’s betrayal. As he proceeds through the Hamlet-like details, Eric and Cera-as-Eric seem to break, their face flooded with conflicting emotions, eyes wet with tears. Is Eric speaking of true events? Remembering something else? Losing control? Or is it Cera himself poking through? Eric finishes the tale, his rapt listeners as on edge as we are, only to undercut the sincerity of his delivery by laughing off his retelling of the plot of The Lion King (1994). But his poker friends are not sure. And we’re not sure. And maybe Eric and even Cera are not sure. The mask of imitation and mimicry, of the dramatic arts, has fallen off, leaving the naked truth of a raw human visage. It is this Eric, who is finally able to return to the house he grew up in and to reclaim the power of Kohlhaase’s kitchen window. In this film, yes, but also perhaps for his generation.

Speaking of windows, on February 20, 2023, I met with Dustin Guy Defa in the quietest corner we could find at Potsdamer Platz: a Filmhaus corridor overlooking the Cinestar’s demise.

– B.W

We’re at the Berlinale. Your film The Adults could have gone to Sundance, where your previous feature Person to Person (2017) premiered. How did the Berlin world premiere come about?

I think it’s the Berlinale choosing us and supporting us. I’m not sure if this is true, but the audiences at Sundance want to be entertained. The audiences here also want to be entertained, but my feeling is that even more than that, they want to be engaged. The engagement part of it is so exciting. That’s what I had with the short film [Person to Person (2014)]. I just felt this engagement that excites me and drives me and thrills me. But it is the festival just supporting us. I got the most amazing, supportive note from Carlo [Chatrian]. I was like, “Ahh.” It was a huge sign of relief in some way.

Everyone, at some point in life, experiences the loss of a parent or person who raised them. In a lot of films, it tends to get depicted as a midlife event, but you centre your film on three very young people, siblings spanning their 20s, early 30s. What attracted you to this material, and why did you set it among a younger constellation of siblings?

It’s so weird to know Michael [Cera] and then find out how old he is. It’s like that with all my friends. I’m sort of confused about people’s ages. I mean, Michael’s not young. We think he’s young.

The Adults

We think he’s, like, ten.

It’s very confusing. Very soon Michael will be hitting middle age, hitting that midlife crisis. It’s not that far away. Obviously, Sophia is much younger, and there’s an age gap there. So, she’s a person who feels very young to me. The absence of the mother and the hints of the father also being absent… I had other drafts where I talk about that more. That’s all lingering there. And there was even just a little bit more that I cut out of the movie. More importantly, the movie is about the difference of what a love story could be between Eric and Rachel. We don’t really see it in the movie, so it really is all about the absence of childhood. Like a lot of siblings, they’ve lived a real, true love story that is so intimate and so extremely powerful. Is there a possibility of a new love story, or is love gone? I know from my sister and from so many people that the love between siblings is so different from any other kind of love. And it’s unbreakable in so many ways even if you want to break it, or it feels broken. It just continues to feel unbroken.

I was talking to an older screenwriter a few years ago about realism in terms of impressions we have of our environment, our home, in the very first years of life, in that brief window of childhood perception. Like, I can talk to my brother about the fascination of watching dust particles floating in the air past a certain window frame when we were children. He is the only person in the entire world who knows what I mean and can picture it. I find it fascinating that you use the term “love story” to talk about this connection. I can understand the attraction to the root idea, but how did you get from that initial fascination to the script?

It started with just wanting to make a movie with Michael. That was the beginning. As I was working on it and thinking about it and then developing and writing it, but eventually more so in rehearsal, I started to realise that the genesis was my relationship with my sister. Trying to think about that love and how we are now and the sadness of the difference and how it won’t be the same. But the way you talk about that dust in the window, it truly does feel like two different worlds – childhood and adolescence. Adolescence is so much closer to adulthood. Because childhood is a world, and fantasy and imagination and reality are the same thing in that world. And there’s nobody else in there. There’re no politicians in there. There’s nothing else happening in there. In that world, you might play monsters or watch cartoons. Everything is as real as everything else. Dinner with Mom and Dad or going to the dentist are as real as pretending there’s lava on the floor in the bedroom. There’s no difference. The world itself, the actual world, isn’t there. It’s not inside that place. 

Obviously now, who knows what kids are getting in terms of streams of information, but your characters would have been small at a time when the Internet would not have been as dominant a force in daily life.

That’s interesting and kind of terrifying. Because imagination is such a giant part of childhood. And that’s what makes me sad. It’s quite hard, as an adult, to have that same imagination and suspension of disbelief. Sometimes you could have it in, like, an escape room, I guess. It’s even hard when watching movies. And you can definitely have it when you’re playing games. That’s why dancing is so important to me. You can really tap into that joy.

I’m thinking about that moment on the first day when all the siblings meet and drink Bloody Marys. It’s the first time in the film that there’s a crossover to a childhood reference that all three siblings are in on. It’s just so striking, Maggie separating herself from the other two, going into a performance mode, requiring Eric and Rachel to watch her. It seems to be a moment of awakening these references to childhood that maybe we squash or push away or can’t use anymore. What happens when they get awakened? You have these three incredibly talented actors and have worked with Michael Cera and Hannah Gross before. Were they in on your process, responding to things you were writing? 

I was originally going to make a short film with the same characters in November of 2019. But Michael and I didn’t do that. I just decided not to do it. It felt rushed. I couldn’t get it together fast enough. But then the characters sort of came back. Then Covid happened. I wrote a draft in April and May of 2020, and we were going to make that feature for an even smaller amount of money. Hannah [Gross] got involved at that point. But thankfully we didn’t do it. Because the draft I wrote after that was 90% different. And that draft was based on talking with Hannah and Michael more. Then I had this amazing conversation with the two of them, not really knowing each other, and from there, I wrote the draft. We just kept talking about the characters. Sophia came in later.

The Adults

What came up in that important conversation?

It was about the characters. The characters started getting deeper and shifting. Obviously, it needs to be lived in in a certain way, but also there needs to be a certain kind of push-and-pull, just something between them. Love, but that wasn’t really what we were calling it. It’s hard to define. It was the way they talked about their characters. We were trying to see how the two characters could be alive. It’s funny, the movie we talked about most is a very, very different movie, which was We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972), by Maurice Pialat. Pialat is a very different filmmaker than me, but that movie is very much about a push and pull. Like pushing buttons. We wanted to bake into the characters a more real dynamic or tension. And we talked about family. I talked about my sister a lot. And they just had ideas about the characters that helped me a lot. It all sparked.

And you went back to the writing process?

That’s when I totally changed the script. It was drastic. Like 90%. Basically, the other draft had a lot of exposition. I was like, “Holy cow, what was I thinking?” But that’s what you do sometimes as a writer. You feel like you need to put all this stuff in. There was so much exposition. It was two brothers and one sister instead, and there was no poker, and the voices weren’t even in there. That’s how different it was. 

No poker and no funny voices? Those are the two elements that make this movie. 

It truly wasn’t the same film. It was the same thing in terms of characters, and the first draft really helped the foundation. 

Was it always the plan to have Eric return after three years? And to come in from far away? 

Yeah. Even the coming and going, him trying to leave town – that was very much the feeling from We Won’t Grow Old Together. You just never know when they’re going to be together and not together in that movie. It jumps from them breaking up to them being together, and there are holes. You want them to get away from each other, but they just keep doing it. In this case, I love the playful structure of my movie: poker keeping Eric in town and him lying about why he’s staying. 

The poker games are such a gentle device for keeping Eric around while keeping him in character. They function within his transitory, non-committal lifestyle of working from hotel rooms and being vague about his plans. What you’ve done so elegantly in your writing and what carries over so well to his performance, is that the audience really buys this opening – that he arrives with a certain feeling, attitude, stance and that he is truly affected by his sisters. And the whole time, you don’t really know whether it’s poker or the sisters keeping him around. It’s a brilliant way to navigate that narrative tension. 

The whole film hinges on the bond between the three siblings. We spectators really have to believe that bond. What was your process of working with your actors? 

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re working before rehearsal. But rehearsal is also very conversation-based. I guess it’s all conversation-based. With Michael, there was a little bit of “What is this person like?” before rehearsal. “How do you get this person right because he’s so complex.” The movie is very simple on the surface, but the way that Eric opens up in the movie, you don’t even know if it’s happening or how it’s happening. But it’s happening. It sometimes feels like he’s getting forced into it. Like that one scene when he’s with Maggie in the kitchen. She cries, and he has to embrace her. Because he’s been lying in the movie and he’s so guarded, if he didn’t hold her in that moment, it would be a sign that he actually didn’t love her or something. But that opens him. Things like that are opening him throughout the movie. But sometimes it is the poker that’s holding him there. Some of it is Michael thinking of other people he knew for the character. I had my own ideas about the character, but I had to let Michael take it over in some way. I knew a lot but let him have his own ideas of how to build the complexity.

Obviously, Michael has a complexity to his boy-next-door image that is very layered, also from other performances he’s done. There’s a lot of nuance to him. But with all of them, they’re able to create this complexity. There’s a lot of subtext, there’s an avoidance of speaking directly about the death of the mother and the circumstances of the father’s absence. And therefore a lot of interesting manoeuvring around the unspoken. 

There are a few individual scenes that feel like the crux of your movie. And it is fascinating to watch what is happening to the actors’ bodies and faces during these performances-within-performances as they enter the zone of childhood memories. One scene that stands out is Eric’s evocation of The Lion King during one particular poker game. Poker is once again an interesting metaphor for Eric’s limitations. He is perhaps most honest while wearing his poker face. All the siblings seem to play with the idea, “I need to get you to believe me,” or “I need to be the best performer in the room right now,” or “I need to win the game.” What Michael is able to do with his face in that moment, in front of the camera, is so incredibly powerful. I’m wondering about your process as a director and Michael’s process as an actor in preparing for that moment. What was it like to shoot that? 

I always knew that the Lion King scene was big and pivotal. I knew it was a revealing scene. I knew that whatever guard this person had put on, whatever adult mask this person had put on, this “poker face” that this person had put on, would fall. Based on the character and all the lying that he’s done. I know that Michael said to me, “Should I play that as if Eric’s performing it?” And I said, “No. It’s a moment that has to be extremely real. It actually has to happen.” As an audience member, perhaps you’re asking, “Is he sincere or honest?” Did he really just have a breakdown or not? Especially when he comes back from it and says he was just doing it to tell them a story. But inside of it, how could this not have been real the way that this person performs it? 

Some people have watched that and thought that Eric did the whole thing on purpose, but for me it’s hard to believe that. One of the reasons I chose The Lion King was that it was about death and that you could come back to this absence and death thing. And that there was something so deep within this character that he was hiding from and not showing people and even afraid of a little bit. I knew it would be a delicate situation to shoot it. I could just feel it building. As we were approaching that scene and that day was happening, I just went to Mike and said, “What’s going to happen here? How many times can you do this 100%?” And he said, “100% will probably only happen once.” He had to do it a number of times – like six or seven or eight times. So, I said, “100%, so when should we plan for that to happen?” Because I needed to be really ready for it. And he said, “The second take.” 

Did he hit it?

That scene is the second take. It’s entirely the second take. I didn’t even use another take. It’s incredible.

There’s almost no mention of the absent father. But we are aware of the dead, absent mother. 

I actually think the scene is more about the mother. Even though it’s a story about a father. I’m using The Lion King because it’s a child’s story, a childlike treatment of death, and a lot of people’s first encounter with death. Bambi was a different generation. Even Mr. Hooper dying on Sesame Street was important for people because adults don’t talk about death much. And you get the portrayal of death in The Lion King or Bambi or Sesame Street. The actual depiction of loss and the feeling of loss struck a lot of children. It was the first time of “Oh, we are actually going to lose people. That loss is going to happen.” 

All acting requires some level of performing, some level of lying, some level of putting on a show or pretending – all those things that tie in so beautifully to childhood. But there’s also something poking out of the poker face. It’s as if, for once, Eric can’t maintain his performance. All the siblings seem unable to maintain their poker or performance faces. There is a lot of passive aggression between Eric and Rachel. On one hand the film contains a lot of playful dance or song-and-dance, but there’s also a kind of narrative dance around the thing that can’t be mentioned: the taboo of the mother’s death, of grief. This is something you do so well. By cutting back on the exposition that plagued the first draft and manoeuvring around it, you make it possible to feel the presence of her absence more. Could you talk a bit more about some of the other performances-within-performances – Eric’s backyard Buster Keaton impersonation and the sibling dance scene at the party?

To lay out the thinking behind some of that stuff, Eric is playing this other game of adult-life poker that he can sort of control. And part of poker is that you can have as much control as you can, but then there are bad beats. Like he says before the Lion King scene, “You used to think I was the funniest person in the world.” His sisters looked up to him so much, and he really was the greatest thing to them. He was the world to them until the world came knocking at puberty or whatever. When he finally sort of wins at poker, another man steals the money. The conscious level of Eric coming to town is, “I’m going to see my sisters,” but there’s this other part, “I’m a better poker player now. I’m going to beat the people who used to be better than me.” He’s very competitive and wants to win, and when he finally wins, he loses in a way. He has a defeated purpose. 

In the backyard party scene, the siblings are weaponising the childhood roles that they had, almost like they’re yanking them away from childhood and putting them into the adult world or burning them down. It’s like a funeral. It’s not a war. It’s the end of one. I sometimes thought about that scene as a funeral or a bonfire or killing the childhood characters off by making them vicious instead of playful. 

Which makes the dance scene with all three siblings soon after that feel like a new beginning of sorts?

Part of it is that the movie sort of builds to Eric’s surrender. Him surrendering to them and giving in to their space. I’ve been thinking more about how, when you go home, it’s the past to you. But it’s their present. It’s their present world, but your past. Because Eric has been defeated in all the ways that he has tried to stay in control, dancing is his way of giving in to his sisters’ play, into whatever they’re doing. But also, I just feel like dancing is one of the only things we do as adults where we just drop our inhibitions and drop our adult masks and have a sort of child-like joy. And if you’re at the right party and the right kind of dancing is happening – I’m not talking about bad dance parties – the world goes away. Your adult responsibilities are no longer with you, and there can be such amazing joy and release in that. I feel like the dancing at that party opens Eric, but also Rachel, up just enough. Also, in the bedroom scene that happens after that, there’s just enough space and safety and heart opening for Eric to show Rachel some kind of expression of love. 

One that’s not performed. 

In a roughcut screening, I had one person say that they still think he’s performing. But that’s not my perspective. 

I think there are layers of genuineness, and maybe Eric is becoming a layer more genuine. It’s like a gradual peeling away of his façades. 

What struck me about every single performance that the siblings did, including the dance, is the feeling that they are speaking another language with each other. One that only they know how to speak. They all know what their cue is. Sometimes it’s just doing impressions as in the backyard party scene. And you think, “Oh, Eric must have done this all the time when he was 10.” We never get the whole backstory about the mother, but there’s a sense – through the siblings and their childhood home – of an acting and singing aspect that binds them to each other, to their family, and to their past. Musical theatre comes to mind. But it’s the fact that they all know exactly where to jump in. They all know their role in something that is common and shared. These moments are not just about the pushing away and passive aggression that we see sometimes, but also the acknowledgement that they are all part of this. “I am part of this. You know how to do it. We all know how to do it.” It felt like the film’s own separate language across several scenes. It impressed me as a way to tie the whole film together. It becomes such a great connective tissue.

To me, it’s not that it would change things if they would all do it together since the recreation of what you did as children isn’t really possible. But that’s why the dance party becomes this fulfilling feeling because it’s like, “Are the three of them going to play together?” Not just one at a time. Or not just Eric and Maggie. In that party scene, Maggie dances. And then Maggie and Eric dance. And then Eric sits down, and Maggie dances. And then Maggie and Rachel dance, and Eric sits there. It’s the resistance of Eric and Rachel playing together. When all three finally do enter that space and play together, it’s a cue, like you were saying, a kind of acknowledgement.

A code. “We are family.”

But we avoid it. My sister and I avoid it constantly. When we play games, it works a little bit. But the tension is still there. 

Any new projects on the horizon?

I have lots of ideas, but they’re all very, very different. I’ve been working on an outline for something for a while and think I’m done with the outline. But the idea is to go back and write for a couple of months. It’s very different from anything I’ve done, but it’s a return to movies that I used to love when I was young. The idea that I’m writing is one I had in high school, and I never thought that I’d go back to it. It’s amazing. We’ll see what happens about getting it made.

About The Author

Brigitta Wagner is a film historian and filmmaker. She is the author of Berlin Replayed: Cinema and Urban Nostalgia in the Postwall Era and the director of Rosehill.

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