The newest film from Joe Swanberg, whatever its faults and virtues might be, makes one thing abundantly clear: that certain styles require a form to pour themselves into if their best qualities are to be revealed. Swanberg’s earlier films, works like Nights and Weekends, and Hannah Takes the Stairs, were hybrids of fiction and documentary. With little of what you might call a classic “story” to them, they depicted ordinary people going about their lives: working, traveling, eating, sleeping, having sex, having arguments. The script was generally improvised, the affect generally minimal—so minimal, in fact, that the term mumblecore grew around his films, to describe the only half-present delivery given to a lot of the dialogue. The idea was to create as natural a film as possible, to include both uninteresting and interesting activity on screen and hope that one type was equal to the other. Any attempts to describe the reality of watching one of these films, though, leads one in a Rumsfeldian direction: suffice it to say that that there are uninteresting scenes that are interesting for being uninteresting, and there are uninteresting scenes that are simply uninteresting. It was as if what we might (broadly) call imagination had been bled out of the films, to get us to look at the contours of ordinary, unaffected reaction.
In recent years, Swanberg has moved away from that: Drinking Buddies had more electricity and sweetness to it than the films preceding it, possibly helped along by the vivaciousness and skill of its actors; 24 Exposures was a suspense film, which failed because it wasn’t that suspenseful, given that relaxed improvisation doesn’t help a suspenseful mood; the current film is a step forward from both of its predecessors: a real story, with a real conflict, real characters, and real moments of poignancy, which are allowed to breathe, as fictional, created moments. But, given that, the question this movie raises is a complex one. I’ve written before about the way in which cap-C culture eventually absorbs what it does not at first understand; at the time, I used Andrew Garfield as an example of someone who had first gained acclaim in smaller-exposure venues and was suddenly playing Spider-Man. In Swanberg’s case, though, what seems to be happening is the reverse: a director who was fairly staunch in his rawness (a rawness executed, it should be said, with deliberation) has now made a nice, even heartwarming movie. So what does that mean, for him, and for our notions of the way artists develop?
The form into which Swanberg’s sensibility has been poured is as follows: Jeff lives with his wife Kelly and their child in a modest home in Chicago. Jeff’s sister Jenny comes home for the holidays, having just broken up with her boyfriend. Her very first night, she goes out with her rowdy friend Carson and gets so drunk she has to be carried home; she’ll spend most of the film in a grown-up-child daze. Kelly seems uptight at first, annoyed at Jenny’s antics, but then reveals herself to be merely frustrated in her writerly ambitions. Jenny meets a boy, loses him, gets upset, gets drunk, nearly burns the house down, doesn’t, and is redeemed, sort of. End of story. It’s a heartwarming tale about the importance of family, about finding your ambition, about following it, about survival, and many other themes that might float around these. The performances are understated and consistently strong: Anna Kendrick, as Jenny, proves herself to be a supple, malleable intelligent actress with self-awareness to spare; Melanie Lynskey is complex as Kelly, offering us a mother who is annoying and endearing by turns, all good things in such a close-up film; Dunham, too, has a played-down presence here as Carson, a genuine wit, a genuine bad influence. As is the case in all his films, Swanberg’s sense of place is solid, as he shows us the pale tans and reds of Chicago neighborhoods in winter, sending an impression of unmistakable coldness in the air. The film is tightly structured, as well—even at its most casual and Swanbergian, there aren’t too many loose ends here. The elements work nicely together; the film purrs smoothly, never going above a certain speed limit. It’s a pleasing experience. And this is where the tricky questions begin. And they’re really just questions.
What does it mean, for instance, that Swanberg has filmed a story which could, one supposes, have been made by another filmmaker? With a bit more polish, a more poppy soundtrack, more big-name stars, more of a big payoff, but basically the same story structure, the same tale could have been told by any director from Barry Levinson to Lisa Cholodenko. What does it mean that Swanberg, who has prided himself on working within a carefully defined fiscal and intellectual budget, has gravitated, starting with Drinking Buddies, towards using more well-known actors, whom he will share with plenty of other directors and other films? And telling cozier, more comfortable stories? Is it as simple as funding, simply having the ability to pay more for talent? Or is there a more subtle development taking place? Could it be that Swanberg is reaching a point of compromise with the films around him—or rather the films around him of this type, about local, down-to-earth subjects, without too many special effects? And if so, what's the nature of that compromise? What led to it? Were the raw, archly relaxed earlier films merely preparation for this point? A point which seems to be something of a middle ground?
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.