It's easy to dismiss the adaptation of Doris Lessing's short story "The Grandmothers" -- now called "Adore" -- as an exercise in cougar silliness. It certainly has the potential to be a laugh-fest. But once you move past the awkwardness of the initial storyline and start asking questions and looking for answers, there is a lot in director Anne Fontaine's ("Coco Before Chanel") film that is incredibly compelling.
Adapted by playwright Christopher Hampton ("Dangerous Liasons"), the film is as much about age and the quest for youth as it is about parenting and disillusioned lives. The story opens by showing two young girls swimming in the Australia sea. Best friends, the two clearly have a close bond, as illustrated when the camera shows the same two girls -- now as adults -- and attending the funeral of one of their husbands.
The new widow is Lil (Naomi Watts) and her best friend who lives next door is Roz (Robin Wright.) The two both work for a yachting company and spend much of their time together -- to the point that some even wonder if they are lovers. They both have boys the same age, and soon enough we jump ahead about eight years to show Roz and Lil once again on the beach and watching their hunky eighteen-year-old kids surfing. Neither is initially lusting after the other's son, but it is clear these women can appreciate a handsome face and toned set of abs.
Lil is still single and evading the advances of an older gentleman named Saul (Gary Sweet.) Roz is married to Harold (Ben Mendelsohn), who has just been offered a job in Sydney. Not wanting to move from their idyllic life, nor away from Lil, Roz is reluctant to leave and tries to delay the move as much as she can. With Harold away at his new position at university, Roz and Lil are free to spend all of their free time together, usually with their two boys right alongside them.
But it is when Ian (Xavier Samuel, "Twilight: Breaking Dawn Pt. 2") kisses Roz that things begin to change. Roz allows it, and before you know it they are sleeping together. When her son Tom (James Frecheville) discovers this, he is noticeably distraught and tells Lil what he has witnessed. It's not long before Tom has slipped into Lil's bed, and soon enough they are having an affair of their own.
Yes, it seems fairly silly, but director Fontaine handles it delicately. What screenwriter Hampton does well here is set up his characters in ways that allow this behavior to make sense. Roz is fearful of change; by having an affair with Ian, she cements a reason to stay. It's also partly an act of revenge on her husband for secretly applying for a job that would irrevocably alter their lives.
Lil has been lonely for a long time, and is also desperately fearful of aging. You see this in how she doesn't reciprocate the advances of Saul -- a bald man who represents getting older. Knowing her best friend has already slept with her son gives her the permission to do the same, while using Tom as the bandage to make herself feel attractive and to fill the loneliness in her life.
Once the affairs begin and the cat is out of the bag, the two women accept the new dynamic and, after a bit, so do the boys. This brings in two interesting themes: One is the inherent problem with relationships between people of markedly different age groups. While older/younger relationships tend to be all the rage, the younger of the two usually can't see beyond anything than what is happening in front of them.
They don't realize that as the older person continues to age, there will be a loss of attraction and a marked difference in interests. As a result, the generation gap will get even wider. This creates stress for the older person, here encompassed by Lil who fears Tom will leave her as soon as a hot young girl enters his life.
The other issue is the fact that we live in a time where the current generation of parents wants to be besties with their kids. It's a rampant problem, and can cause confusion to children who need a parent, not another BFF. So once Lil and Roz start gallivanting around with each other's sons, their behavior as parents spins out of control. These are boys that aren't thinking fully, and need someone to guide them to do what is right.
Unfortunately, Liz and Roz have taken a role that is detrimental to their sons' development -- choosing selfishness over effective child-rearing. One can argue that the boys are over eighteen, and the film even advances two years to show that the relationships have sustained themselves. But these kids are still finding their way, and their parents' behavior should reflect nurturing.
Both boys try to act more than their age. Tom discusses taking on theatre directing jobs as if he's a veteran, and Ian gets addressed by his older work peers as "Mister..." Clearly, the boys are struggling to keep up with their older lovers, while the older lovers are trying to keep up with the younger ones. It's a taxing dynamic.
What's interesting, though, is that -- as in life-- nothing is black and white. Roz and Ian clearly have feelings for each other that go beyond the sexual. Lil and Tom seem to be more about the sex and the novelty of it all. There are reasons why these two women do what they do, and there are reasons why the boys do it as well. It doesn't just come down to sexual attraction; that would be the plot for an '80s sex romp in the vein of "My Tutor." Here, it's about the consequences resulting from choices made out of fear and pain.
But that's not all. There is another fascinating aspect to the story that begs to be mentioned. More than once in the film, Roz and Lil are accused of being lesbians. The first time they discuss it, they do so in an almost uncomfortable way. But there's an underlying potential for truth there that is apparent in their nervous laughter.
This happens again later, which begs the question: Could their affairs be a way of keeping close to each other without actually admitting they want to be together? It could very well be a way of repressing their true natures by assuring that the other remains close. It's a fascinating possibility which makes this a film that is more than its three-line premise.
The direction by Fontaine is simple and elegant, giving the film a realism that forces you to take the film seriously. She certainly shows the boys in all their hunky glory, but it's not overdone to the point of farce. She needs to show what attracts the women to the boys, and she does it respectfully. But the best part of the film goes to Watts and Wright.
Naomi Watts allows herself to be a not-so-forgiving character. Moreover, in her misguided decisions, she allows herself to be vulnerable to the myriad of emotions she's been feeling for quite some time. She plays this beautifully.
Wright, too, allows us into a woman that seems completely content with her life, only to have it thrown upside down when her husband announces they need to move. We understand why she suddenly questions everything and why she would choose to start something that could end her relationship and thus allow her to stay. Again, it's a misguided judgment call, but that's what people do when they are afraid: They tread water long enough to get to safe ground. And while this is what Wright shows to us, she also allows us to see her struggle to remain a parent.
"Adore" might make cynical audiences snicker, but the plot is not beyond the realm of possibility considering the dynamics presented. In that, there is a fascinating study of four people who might never make the choices they should.
"Adore" is now playing in select cities and OnDemand/VOD