Adopting Audrey has its European première at the Glasgow Film Festival, 2023
“Don’t you ever feel like you just want to – leave?”, asks Audrey (Jena Malone, astonishingly nuanced) at the call centre where she works. Audrey is surprised to hear how long the customer on the other end of the phone has lived in Denver – not because Audrey has anything against Colorado, but because she herself rarely settles anywhere for long. For now, she is in Saugerties, New York, but she moves rapidly from job to job and place to place. “A seeker” is how one character will later describe her, somewhat romantically – but really Audrey is just rootless and more than a little lost, and as the plot of writer/director M. Cahill’s Adopting Audrey unfolds, she will also become homeless, leaving the apartment for which she could never afford the rent and taking up residence, not for the first time, in the back of her car.
One night, random scrolling through her smart phone will lead Audrey, on a whim, to put herself up for adult adoption, and so she enters the orbit of the aptly named Sunny (Emily Kuroda) and her second husband Otto (Robert Hunger-Bühler), who live with – and look after – Otto’s ailing Mutti (Jillian Lindig). Otto is insufferable: a tetchily gruff, tiresomely didactic, occasionally enraged monster of a man who has long since driven away his own now adult son John (Will Rogers) and daughter Gretchen (Brooke Bloom), the latter herself now a mother.
Yet Audrey likes Otto. Now that he is retired from the engineering job with NASA that had absorbed most of his time and attention, Otto is starting to look back ruefully over a life in which he has been a bad husband and a bad father – and Audrey represents for him a second chance of sorts. Meanwhile Audrey’s own parents – still very much alive on the opposite coast in Riverside, California – are a significant part of the reason that Audrey lives so far away and cannot form attachments for long, and so she regards Sunny and Otto, warts and all, as improvements on the real thing.
Accordingly Adopting Audrey is a film about surrogacy, as Audrey gets to play at being Otto’s daughter, and he at being her father, in what Otto terms an ‘experiment’ in family relations. The bond that these two form, fragile and not without its own dysfunction, comes with an affection, however wary, that both of them have lacked in their relationships with actual kin. Both are flawed people, but capable of seeing the good in each other – and together they have a respect for one another that seems genuinely healthy, in part because they have not, unlike real relatives, shared a lifetime of mutual resentment and corrosive attrition.
Besides its closely observant humour, the great virtue of Cahill’s script is its understatement. Otto may be prone to explosions, as “unpredictable” as the fireworks that he sets up but recognises require an extinguisher nearby in case things get too heated – but he is also, frequently, taciturn, as is Audrey, and their quieter moments working or hanging out together are every bit as effective as the lived-in dialogue. Here metaphor is often allowed to do the talking. Though living out of her car under a park bridge is far from ideal, Audrey somehow seems even more adrift and homeless when we finally see her at her actual home – even if Mom (Marsha Dietlein) and Dad (Charlie Romanelli), far from being lazily demonised as bestial abusers, are just blankly loveless.
In Otto’s back garden is an old treehouse in a state of awful disrepair – providing a focal point for all the other broken homes in Adopting Audrey. “It was there when we moved in”, remarks Otto, who himself never had the time or skills to repair it, despite the pleas of his children when they actually still were children – but Audrey, whose isolation has made her both resourceful and practical, takes it upon herself to fix up the structure so that Gretchen’s own young children can use it. This act of homebuilding is obviously symbolic, as Audrey tries to fill in the gaps of Gretchen’s, John’s and her own lost childhoods, and of Otto’s paternal inadequacy, while creating home improvements for the next generation. In this tree, she is finally, for the first time, putting down her own roots – or at least rehearsing what it might be like to do that.
Part of the subtlety of Adopting Audrey rests in its tentativeness. There are no eleventh-hour reconciliations, no declarations of love or grand healing gestures – just damaged characters licking their wounds, trying on new rôles and forging new connections, if for nothing else then, as Otto puts it, “for regulating blood pressure”. Audrey wants, for now and for the first time, to stay – and that is the beginning of a future markedly different from the past.
strap: M. Cahill’s story of surrogacy sees a rootless, drifting young woman finding herself in a family not her own
© Anton Bitel