Filmmaker Dustin Guy Defa likes the mess of family tensions. But he’s ready to grow up

A man with a short haircut and mustache, wearing blue, gives a faint smile to the camera.
Director Dustin Guy Defa’s new film, “The Adults,” is now in theaters. His filmography is being celebrated on the Criterion Channel.
(Jens Koch)

Like no one else, your siblings know the real you. They’ve seen you at your worst, maybe at your best, and in any case, at your smallest. It’s a relationship with a closeness and a candor all its own, but also with its own challenges over the years.

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

Sibling relationships are often ill-served by family dramas, indie or otherwise, which tend to ladle out trite beats and easy gags. “The Adults” is something else — a funny, unpredictable and achingly poignant portrait of three people struggling to connect. Michael Cera plays Eric, an elusive elder brother visiting his two sisters, Rachel (Hannah Gross), who lives in the family house that used to belong to their dead mother, and college-age Maggie (Sophia Lillis), now back in her hometown.


It’s not a smooth visit. Eric keeps making excuses to shorten how long he’s in town, begging off to play in poker games or attend to possibly fictional work calls. Rachel is losing patience, grumbling in the rambling multi-bedroom house she now looks after. She worries Eric’s flightiness will hurt Maggie, bright-eyed and sweet. “They occupy the past,” Defa says. “But they’re also occupying their own present.”

“The Adults” doesn’t have a big Thanksgiving dinner, or a feud over inheritance, just resentments and misunderstandings on a decades-long simmer, and a fond, odd rapport that can still click into a groove. They hang out. They bowl. Eric plays poker (and at one point computer chess). It’s a genuinely character-driven feature from the Los Angeles-based director, who quietly excels at eliciting nuanced performances and writing slightly off-kilter details in service of not quirk but whisker-sensitive emotional realism.

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 streetwise ensemble — including Cera, Abbi Jacobson, Philip Baker Hall, Tavi Gevinson and Bene Coopersmith — on New York orbits of aspiration and desperation. He’d also garnered critical attention on the strength of his 2011 debut feature, “Bad Fever,” and several short films, including the perfectly crafted romantic conundrum “Person to Person” (yes, same title) and the eye-opening “Family Nightmare.” For the latter, Defa compiled and adapted his family’s drunken home movies in Salt Lake City into a 10-minute record of bad vibes and not-so-hidden traumas.

Much of this early work is now online in a Criterion Channel program devoted to the director. But “The Adults” had its world premiere in February at the Berlin Film Festival, which is where I chatted with the lanky, youthful Defa, 45, fresh off his first showings.

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


Both films have an uncanny way of getting under your skin. There’s a fight here and there, but it’s the hovering feel of avoidance and frustration that might resonate most with anyone whose childhood bonds have frayed but remain inescapable.

In “The Adults,” Defa finds a weird and delightful way of tuning into the particular bond between Eric, Rachel and Maggie. They have a habit of dipping into a private repertoire of made-up songs and oddball characters. Without much warning, these adults will suddenly start speaking in a cartoonish voice: Eric turns rummy as a mannered Brit named Charles, while Rachel murmurs as “Moopie-Moopie.” Or the trio will walk through amateur musical numbers, with sweetly unwieldy lyrics and steps. (One such ditty is called “Go Around Me, Buddy.”)

It’s a homegrown ritual, and what’s key is that Defa never mocks the practice. This is just how they relate sometimes, and it’s usually a relief for them when they do, a playful way to channel emotions.

A woman with a vacuum cleaner speaks with a seated man.
Hannah Gross and Michael Cera play siblings in “The Adults.”
(Variance Films)

“I did a lot of voices when I was young,” the filmmaker explains. He remembers doing characters with his sister — “commercials, game shows, movies” — all of it an entertaining habit. “We can access that joy through dancing or games or things like that,” he adds.

Defa’s central trio of actors are surefooted in these passages, as well as the script’s thornier ones. Cera brings an amusing furtiveness to Eric, but also a devastating sense of the roiling feelings within. Gross (“Mindhunter,” “Deadwax”) has worked with Defa many times; her Rachel puts on an acerbic front but would welcome the chance for openness. And as Maggie, Lillis (“Asteroid City,” “It”) nails a tricky role with a stunning mix of vulnerability and attunement.


“What I usually do is watch interviews with the person,” Defa says of his casting process. “I like nice people. People who have an engagement with the craft.”

Defa and Cera are friends. Early in the pandemic, they played poker in a zoom group that included Cera’s father. The director sees a new dimension to Cera’s acting in this film, speculating whether the actor’s work in Kenneth Lonergan’s stage productions (“Lobby Hero,” “Waverly Gallery”) was a factor.

“I feel like something has happened for him, a deepening while he’s been making those plays,” Defa says. “Eric is a character who is so guarded and afraid of the power of love these people have. Maybe he knows that the adult mask he’s wearing is like a poker face. It’s like he doesn’t want to be known or something. Which happens a lot. I’ve done that in my own life.”

Dustin Guy Defa’s intimate family drama follows a compulsive poker player reluctantly reuniting with his two sisters in his upstate New York hometown.

Aug. 17, 2023

Poker has its place in the movie, providing some suspenseful (and strange) interludes, with Eric obsessively drawn to the one-upmanship, bluffing and drama of each hand. The games, at different locations, feed his siblings’ growing discontent about their brief time together. Defa recalls long conversations with Cera and Gross about the script, talking about the comings and goings of Maurice Pialat’s tumultuous 1972 drama, “We Won’t Grow Old Together.”

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

When I checked in with Defa months later, closer to his film’s release, he cited two more filmmakers: Lonergan and Mike Leigh, both of which ring true. “I think it’s the basic interest in the human being,” he says, a search for “how to be kinder to each other under difficult circumstances.”

Defa is careful to clarify that the story of “The Adults” is personal, not autobiographical. But over the course of the script’s evolution, he grew more and more certain that he needed to change its ending. No spoilers here, but in the process of rewriting it, something clicked for him, personally.


“It got me deeper into thinking about my sister,” Defa says. “Everything just started happening for me. It’s weird that I didn’t know that already, that it wasn’t already there. And that put me into an extremely vulnerable place.”

He goes on to suggest that sometimes you have to listen to a movie to find it. But as Defa chooses his words, he may just as well be talking about sibling relationships, how they can take patience, time or something unquantifiable to have a resurgence.

“You have to be in that place of being open enough to find it,” he says, “and allowing it.”

Tapping into that openness is the key to his characters finally relating, aspiring to the film’s title (if not quite there yet). Their breakthrough is Defa’s as well.