If You Haven’t Seen “The Adults” Yet, You’re Missing Michael Cera’s Best Work

The actor delivers a career-best performance in the independent sibling dramedy

September 5, 2023 6:08 am
Michael Cera and Sophia Lillis in "The Adults"
Michael Cera and Sophia Lillis in "The Adults"
Variance Films

Michael Cera has always been great. Since his breakout role in the beloved sitcom Arrested Development as George Michael Bluth, Cera has excelled at playing sweet, lovable, dorky characters. While it is a niche that has certainly allowed the actor to work consistently in Hollywood, it can also feel like a trap to play the same thing over and over — being known for one thing and one thing only isn’t exactly what most people, particularly actors, dream of. There’s typically an inherent desire to show that you can do anything. While his characters in films and shows like Superbad, Juno, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Life and Beth and Youth in Revolt are different, they’re all linked by those characteristics that have become intrinsically linked to Cera. 

2023 has proved to be a surprising year for Cera, who’s finally emerging after some quiet years as a force to be reckoned with. He had an excellent cameo in Black Mirror’s “Joan is Awful” and had a standout role in Barbie, the year’s biggest film. He’s also the lead of Command Z, a series by Steven Soderbergh that dropped on the internet as a surprise in July, and he’s got Scott Pilgrim Takes Off, an anime series expanding the world of the beloved film. That’s an impressive year by anyone’s standards, but Cera has one hell of an ace up his sleeve: a starring role in Dustin Guy Defa’s The Adults, a beautifully nuanced character study. It’s one of the finest and funniest independent films of the year, and it has the finest work Cera has ever done, breaking free of the roles that defined him into something stranger, and more striking, than anything before.

Cera plays Eric, returning to his hometown after years away. He lives in Portland, far from the upstate New York town he grew up in. He’s there for a short visit to see some friends and finds himself back at his family home where his sisters Rachel (Hannah Gross) and Maggie (Sophia Lillis) still live. He hasn’t seen them in years, and despite preparing to see them, is clearly taken aback by their presence. Eric meekly asks when Rachel dyed her hair, for example, only to find out she did it a year ago. “I didn’t know that,” he stumbles. “You would if you ever Skyped or FaceTimed, or whatever,” Rachel responds. Eric has nothing to say in response.

Though Eric is meant to only be in town to see his friend’s baby, the news of a poker game — something he’s never been good at staying away from — proves irresistible. To keep playing more and more poker, Eric continually delays his flight home, which forces him to face his sisters and process their relationship, from the loss they’ve all dealt with and how they’re all struggling to truly grow up. His relationship with his older sister Rachel feels fraught with tension, but his younger sister Maggie is overjoyed to see him home. For Maggie, it’s clear that Eric is a piece of her life she’s desperately missing. His sisters are still struggling with the loss of their mother, who passed away five years ago, and Eric seems to be the one who has it all together. Seems, of course, because in reality, Eric might be the most broken of them all.

That probably doesn’t sound like a laugh riot, but The Adults is an exceptionally funny movie. The careful, precise dialogue written by Defa feels deeply rooted in the lives of its characters. The movie finds an immediate rhythm when Eric, Rachel and Maggie are all together. Clearly, there’s a lot of love between these three siblings, but it’s been muddied by years of neglect and frustration. 

The discomfort that fills the air disappears during an impromptu musical performance started by Maggie in their backyard. Eric sits watching with a smile that’s tinted with joy and regret. After slight goading from Maggie, Eric gets up to join her, and the two sing together with perfectly synchronized choreography, making it clear that the performance is one that they put together as kids and likely performed regularly. Eric completes his part and sits back down, and Rachel gets up for her segment. As his sisters dance around wildly and happily, Defa’s camera closes in on Eric. He’s smiling, but his eyes and furrowed brow tell a different story. It’s a hugely touching moment, as we see Eric grappling with the joyful nostalgia of the musical number and the crushing guilt of leaving his sisters behind to forge his own life. And it’s all explored through Cera’s face. 

The longer Eric stays home, the closer he gets to his sisters, but it also causes Eric to regress into bad habits. One thing he clearly struggles with is his tendency to take a joke too far. That’s evident from the moment we see Eric and his sisters together again, as he continually jokes about the legs of their waitress, something his sisters initially smirk at before growing increasingly uncomfortable. It comes to a head at a party his sisters are attending. Eric is talking to a woman from his past who desires him, but instead of acting rationally, Eric becomes increasingly childish, pulling out a Tony Soprano impersonation. In fairness, he was asked about whether he’s seen The Sopranos, but it doesn’t make his reaction any less strange. It’s extremely weird, cringy and off-kilter, and also tremendously funny — the kind of balance that The Adults nails so beautifully. 

The reaction is a perfect fit for Eric. He and his sisters are all deeply stunted by the struggles of their past that have prevented them from progressing. Eric goes through a string of impressions in a duel with Rachel, who does the same. Out of context, it would seem like some sort of bizarre acting class, but in The Adults, it’s equal parts emotional and hysterical. Eric and Rachel so badly want to say things to each other that they’ve never been able to, but all they can muster is a string of impersonations to try and express their deeply seated anxieties and emotions. Instead of saying how they feel, they verbally joust in quirky voices, akin to the performances they put together as children. It’s a tense conversation, which soon makes way for the siblings to do what they do best … synchronized choreography. Every family has their own way of communicating; in The Adults, it’s a little more unique, but no less profound. 

The Adults is the best kind of film — one that initially charms, before lingering in your mind for weeks on end. And Cera, who’s been quietly impressive for years, is a total revelation. His character is far from the sweet, nerdy persona we’ve come to expect from him. Eric is often antagonizing — especially in poker games — and often cold and detached. But Cera beautifully accesses his character’s emotions and plays Eric with a charm lying under years of frustration and regret. It’s one of the year’s best and most surprising performances in one of the year’s best, most surprising films. 

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