The Adults filmmaker Dustin Guy Defa is ready to grow up

Your siblings know the real you better than anyone else. They may have seen your worst side in best form and definitely in smallest form. It is a relationship with its own closeness and openness, but also with its own challenges over the years.

“This love is unlike any other love,” says Dustin Guy Defa, writer-director of “The Adults” (now in limited edition), about two sisters and a brother who come together for an intense few days. “I think it’s so powerful because you were each other’s world. And it’s scary.”

Family dramas, whether they’re indie films or not, often don’t benefit sibling relationships because they tend to peddle hackneyed rhythms and simple gags. The Adults is something else – a funny, unpredictable and painfully poignant portrait of three people struggling to connect. Michael Cera plays Eric, an elusive older brother who is visiting his two sisters, Rachel (Hannah Gross), who lives in the family home formerly owned by their dead mother, and college-aged Maggie (Sophia Lillis), who is now back in her hometown is .

It’s not a smooth visit. Eric keeps making excuses to shorten his stay in town, begging him to play poker games or possibly take on fictional work visits. Rachel is losing patience and grumbling in the sprawling, multi-bedroom home she now oversees. She worries that Eric’s fickleness might hurt bright and sweet Maggie. “They occupy the past,” says Defa. “But they also occupy their own present.”

There’s no big Thanksgiving dinner or inheritance feud in The Adults, just resentments and misunderstandings over a decades-long history and a loving, odd relationship that can still get in the mood. They hang out. They bowl. Eric plays poker (and eventually computer chess). It’s a truly character-driven feature film from the Los Angeles-based director, who quietly excels at evoking nuanced performances and writing slightly off-balance details that aren’t whimsical, but soulful and emotionally realistic.

A distracted man sits in front of a laptop.

Michael Cera as Eric in The Adults.

(variance films)

Defa’s breezy last feature, 2017’s Person to Person, followed a street style ensemble – including Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Philip Baker Hall, Tavi Gevinson and Bene Coopersmith – on New York orbits of longing and despair. He also garnered critical attention with his 2011 feature debut Bad Fever and several shorts, including the perfectly directed romantic mystery Person to Person (yes, same title) and the insightful Family. Nightmare.” For the latter, Defa compiled his family’s drunk home videos in Salt Lake City and turned them into a 10-minute recording of bad moods and not-so-hidden trauma.

Much of this early work is now available online in a Criterion Channel program dedicated to the director. But The Adults had its world premiere in February at the Berlin Film Festival, where I caught up with the lanky, teenage Defa, 45, who was just starting out in acting.

“The strong, unbreakable bond of family, despite tragedy, separation or division, is one of the main reasons I did both films,” he said of The Adults and Family Nightmare.

Both films have an uncanny way of getting under your skin. There’s a struggle here and there, but it’s that floating sense of avoidance and frustration that resonates most with anyone whose childhood ties may be broken but remain inescapable.

In The Adults, Defa finds an odd and delightful way to tune into the special bond between Eric, Rachel, and Maggie. They have a habit of delving into a private repertoire of made-up songs and weird characters. Without much warning, these adults suddenly begin speaking in a cartoony voice: Eric becomes rummy as a mannered Brit named Charles, while Rachel mumbles as “Moopie-Moopie.” Or the trio runs through amateur music numbers, with sweetly bulky lyrics and steps. (One such ditty is called “Go Around Me, Buddy.”)

It’s an indigenous ritual, and the bottom line is that the Defa never scoffs at the practice. It’s just the way they react sometimes, and usually when they do it’s a relief for them, a playful way of channeling emotions.

A woman with a vacuum cleaner is talking to a seated man.

Hannah Gross and Michael Cera play siblings in The Adults.

(variance films)

“I sang a lot of voices when I was young,” explains the filmmaker. He recalls playing characters with his sister — “commercials, game shows, movies” — all a fun habit. “We can achieve that joy through dancing, games or something like that,” he adds.

Defa’s central trio of actors are sure-footed in these passages, as well as in the script’s more delicate passages. Cera gives Eric an amusing stealth but also a crushing sense of the roiling emotions inside him. Gross (“Mindhunter”, “Deadwax”) has worked with Defa many times; Her Rachel gives a snappy attitude but would appreciate the chance to be frank. And as Maggie, Lillis (“Asteroid City,” “It”) takes on a tricky role with a stunning blend of vulnerability and sensitivity.

“I usually look at interviews with the person,” Defa says of his casting process. “I like nice people. People who deal with the craft.”

Defa and Cera are friends. At the beginning of the pandemic, they played poker in a Zoom group that included Cera’s father. The director sees a new dimension in Cera’s acting in this film and speculates if the actor’s work played a role in Kenneth Lonergan’s stage productions (Lobby Hero, Waverly Gallery).

“I feel like something happened to him, a deepening, as he played these pieces,” says Defa. “Eric is a character who is so reserved and afraid of the power of love that these people have. Maybe he knows the adult mask he’s wearing is like a poker face. It’s like he doesn’t want to be known or something. Which often happens. I have done that in my own life.”

Poker has its place in the film and makes for some exciting (and odd) interludes, with Eric obsessingly drawn to the superiority, bluff and drama of each hand. The games in different locations fuel his siblings’ growing dissatisfaction with their short time together. Defa recalls long conversations with Cera and Gross about the screenplay, in which he discussed the comings and goings of Maurice Pialat’s turbulent 1972 drama We Won’t Grow Old Together.

“This movie is just a long love-divorce story,” says Defa. “It’s the push and pull.”

When I checked with Defa months later, just before his film’s release, he named two other filmmakers: Lonergan and Mike Leigh, both of whom ring true.

“I think it’s a fundamental human interest,” he says, a quest for “how to be kinder to one another in difficult circumstances.”

Defa makes it a point to clarify that The Adults’ story is personal and not autobiographical. But as the script developed, he realized he needed to change the ending. No spoilers, but something clicked with him personally when he rewrote it.

“It made me think more deeply about my sister,” says Defa. “It’s all just begun for me. It’s weird that I didn’t already know that, that it wasn’t there yet. And that put me in an extremely vulnerable position.”

Defa goes on to point out that sometimes you have to listen to a movie to find it. But if he chooses his words, he might as well be talking about sibling relationships, how it can take patience, time, or something immeasurable to bounce back.

“You have to be at the point where you’re open enough to find it,” he says, “and to allow it.”

Leveraging that openness is key to allowing its characters to finally identify and aspire to the film’s title (though not quite there yet). Her breakthrough is also that of the Defa.

Emma Bowman

Emma Bowman is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Emma Bowman joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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