Rachel Tunnard’s funny and touching Adult Life Skills wins the Nora Ephron Prize at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival!
Special for FF2 Media by Nora Lee Mandel
Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) touts that one-third of the films–fiction and documentary–screened at this year’s 11-day event in Lower Manhattan were directed by women (the highest percentage in its 15 years).
Since 2013, a much anticipated highlight for those championing women filmmakers is the awarding of the Nora Ephron Prize. Established a year after Ephron’s death in 2012, judges select a narrative film making its North American, International, or World Premiere at the Festival that is directed by or written by a woman who embodies the spirit and vision of Nora Ephron (the writer/director renowned for such popular female-centric films as Sleepless in Seattle from 1993, You’ve Got Mail from 1998, and, her last, Julie & Julia in 2009).
Adult Life Skills begins, humorously, a couple of years after a family tragedy. “Anna” (Jodie Whittaker) is so bereft over the death of her twin brother Billy that she has not only moved back to her mother’s Yorkshire suburban home, but she holes up in the backyard shed re-watching the fanciful films they used to make together, including comic ceremonies awarding life skills badges she still cherishes.
Missing her other half, Anna now updates their oeuvre with delightful videos of finger puppets having Pythonesque arguments. (Those are Tunnard’s painted thumbs as knowledgeable about philosophy as sci fi trivia, and way more sophisticated than my own childhood finger puppets.) She only gets out to bike to work at a rustic youth center where she is annoyed by odd guys: the neighbor (cow)boy Clint (Ozzy Myers) who is facing similar grief; devoted co-worker Brendan (Brett Goldstein); and the snorkeling spirit of her twin (Edward Hogg), a whimsical take on A Beautiful Mind.
But as her 30th birthday approaches, it is not a Prince Charming, but the women in her life who unite to revive Anna — her matchmaking mother Marion (Lorraine Ashbourne); Golden Girl-like grandmother (Eileen Davies); and, especially, the return of her earthy best friend Fiona (Rachael Deering).
This is a film enriched by BFFs in every way. Whittaker is a British “star” who first garnered attention in 2006 for Roger Michell’s Venus, then in 2011 for Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block. But she’s also a childhood friend of Deering who added Tunnard to their circle when they met at a college party. Tunnard was a film editor, but wanted to come up with something they could make together. She tested the viability of her idea as a pilot short film Emotional Fusebox, with most of the same cast, and garnered a 2015 BAFTA nomination.
Before all the financing was secured, Whittaker announced she was pregnant, and they all scrambled to start as quickly and cheaply as possible: not only filming in their old home neighborhood (hence all those extras with authentic northern accents), but the two best-friends-on-screen returned to stay at their parents’ houses, much like their characters. Family members provided story inspiration and took bit roles, like Tunnard’s dad and Whittaker’s brother making a droll pub scene memorable.
Though the continuing talk about the brother, and everyone’s efforts to get Anna dating again disqualify the sprightly screenplay from passing a strict application of the Bechdel-Wallace Test, Tunnard’s close collaborations with friends and family recall how Ephron worked, too. Her sister Delia Ephron was a frequent co-writer, including her directing debut This Is My Life (1992) and her penultimate Bewitched (2005).
Much more about Ephron and her family was fondly recalled in her son Jacob Bernstein’s bio-doc Everything Is Copy, shown on HBO this year. Of all the films that were possibly eligible for the Ephron Award, I, too, felt the creator of Adult Life Skills best embodied the spirit and vision of Nora Ephron. Tunnard just Tweeted that announcement of U.S. distribution is imminent (after its U.K. debut in June).
The Festival has been a bit opaque about the Ephron Prize, now calling it a “curated award” sponsored by Coach. In its first year, 2013, all the eligible films were announced in advance, but not the judges. Meera Menon won for Farah Goes Bang. Menon triumphantly returned this year for the New York premiere of her second feature, Equity. Sony Pictures Classics will release this female written, directed, and produced film–with Anna Gunn in the dynamic lead and additional women in Wall Street roles–on July 29. Menon also participated on a panel with directors Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and U.S. Narrative Competition juror Jennifer Westfeldt (Friends With Kids) discussing their experiences in the industry.
This year the Nora Ephron Award judges were announced in advance, though none were known primarily for their writing or directing. Rachael Leigh Cook, Judy Greer, and Mary Stuart Masterson are all actresses (although Masterson made her directorial debut with The Cake Eaters, which premiered at TFF in 2007 and is now streaming on Amazon).
Initially, twelve unspecified female directors and screenwriters were announced eligible, but the final award notice cited the selection was made from unspecified 13 eligible films, with six female writer-directors, ten female writers, and four female directors.
To be prepared to review the Nora Ephron Award winner, I saw:
- 16 fiction features directed by women (some also as writers),
- 4 additional fiction features written by women,
- 18 feature documentaries directed by women (some also as writers),
- 11 fiction shorts directed by women (some also as writers),
- 2 additional fiction shorts written by women,
- 2 documentary shorts directed by women,
- 3 features with women cinematographers or editors.
That’s a lot of women filmmakers! My commentaries on these films are at MavensNest: http://mavensnest.net/TFF2016women.html
For the context of the other competition around Adult Life Skills, there were other women winners at the Festival:
- Best New Narrative Director – Priscilla Anany, director of Children of the Mountain (USA/Ghana);
- Best Screenplay in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film – Women Who Kill, written (and directed) by Ingrid Jungermann;
- Best Narrative Short – Hold On (Houvast), directed by Charlotte Scott-Wilson (Netherlands);
- Student Visionary Award – Ping Pong Coach (乒乓), written by Chieh Yang (Taiwan R.O.C./USA); and
- Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature Film – Mackenzie Davis in Always Shine, directed by Sophia Takal.
Previous Nora Ephron Award Winners at Tribeca:
2013 Farah Goes Bang (USA) – written and directed by Meera Menon.
2014 Zero Motivation (Israel) – written and directed by Talya Lavie. The jurors were writer Delia Ephron, actresses Carol Kane and Natasha Lyonne, previous Nora Ephron Award winner Meera Menon, and director Tanya Wexler. Zero Motivation was released by Zeitgeist.
2015 – Sworn Virgin (Albania/Italy) – directed by Laura Bispuri and written by Francesca Manieri and Bispuri. The jurors were actors Rachael Harris and Kevin Corrigan; actress/director Christine Lahti, writer/director Katja Blichfeld, and previous Nora Ephron Award winner director Talya Lavie. Sworn Virgin is being distributed in U.S. theaters now by Strand Releasing.
PHOTO CREDITS: Jodie Whittaker as “Anna” in Adult Life Skills. (Photographer: Jo Irvine)