The oft-derided quasi-subgenre of “mumblecore” has increasingly come into its own in the last few years. Inaugurated by Andrew Bujalski’s 2002 feature Funny Ha Ha, the movement was at first characterized by low-budget, dialogue-heavy independent films, typically using non-professional actors, whose narratives tended toward naturalistic portrayals of interpersonal relationships. But several of the filmmakers associated with the mumblecore banner early on have since strayed in ways both large and small from its initial moorings, yielding more polished work. Meanwhile, newer filmmakers have drawn inspiration from some of its aesthetic coordinates but applied them to different kinds of narratives, resulting in films like Gareth Edwards’ brilliantly muted and warped creature feature Monsters (the success of which earned Edwards a decidedly mainstream gig directing the impending Godzilla reboot) and Aaron Katz’ hipster detective thriller Cold Weather.
Director: Joe Swanberg
Producers: Adam Donaghey, Joe Swanberg
Writers: Jane Adams, Joe Swanberg
Cinematographer: Joe Swanberg
Editor: Joe Swanberg
Music: Orange Mighty Trio
Cast: Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne
Premiere: November 3, 2012 – AFI Film Festival
US Release: December 20, 2013
US Distributor: Factory 25
In this respect, director (and sometime actor) Joe Swanberg is an archetypal figure within this slice of the indie film universe. His earliest films, including 2006’s LOL and 2007’s Hannah Takes the Stairs, were evocative, lo-fi dramas that wrung impressive emotional complexity from a near-monastic formal simplicity. Last year’s Drinking Buddies, meanwhile, found Swanberg collaborating with bonafide movie stars like Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, but the film retained Swanberg’s trademark emotional acuity. Indeed, it was one of 2013’s finest features, and may be Swanberg’s best work. Since then, he’s made another foray into more commercial media, directing a superb episode of HBO’s new drama Looking.
Still, it’s surprising that his latest film, All the Light in the Sky, follows this seeming commercial leap forward with a return to the barebones aesthetic of his earliest work. It’s a raw character study, its narrative gentle, feather-light, and not quite there. Nonetheless, the film radiates wisdom, tinged with remarkably personal wrinkles of emotion. At this level, All the Light in the Sky belongs, in so many ways, not to Swanberg but to star and co-writer Jane Adams. Famous for her parts in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Happiness as well as a starring role in HBO’s series Hung, Adams possesses a subtle communicative magnetism, effortlessly filling the screen with a natural warmth and resonance. Even in the rare scenes that spill into dullness, her performance and her writing shine through.
All the Light in the Sky follows Adams' character Marie, an actress in her 40s who, while teetering on the precipice of a handful of minor crises, somehow manages to keep her good humor perpetually intact. Her niece Faye, a fellow aspiring actress two decades her junior, arrives from Brooklyn for a brief visit to Marie's gorgeous Malibu abode, and while Marie swells openheartedly and playfully into the role of aunt and mentor, Faye's presence delicately triggers some of Marie's closely guarded neuroses, especially concerning her relationship with her aging body in matters of sex and romance. There's no overt strife between the film's characters, but unspoken tensions and attractions orbit them, more visible at some times than others. Still, it's a good-natured and big-hearted film, capturing with rare accuracy and humanity those moments in life where melancholy coexists simply with hope and togetherness, all while nothing much seems to happen at all.
All the Light in the Sky draws its title from its weakest thread of plot, a ponderous series of vignettes in which Marie, researching a role, speaks to an engineer about the particularities of solar energy. It's a curious attempt to corral the film's impressionistic sprawl into a broad metaphor, and it doesn't entirely work. But rather than dragging down the lighter, more playful sequences that make up the bulk of the film, these heavier scenes shed their additional weight and float into the tranquil stratosphere alongside the film’s most intimate moments.
This isn't the first time that Swanberg and Adams have worked together, and their collaborative sensibility yields a wry, wistful sweetness that's inescapably charming. It's a testament to the strength of their vision, their shared emotional connectivity, that All the Light in the Sky makes the trappings of conflict, the traditional anchor of cinematic storytelling, feel like baggage to be left behind. And at its finest, freest moments, it’s a film that makes the small, personal world of the self, where outward kindnesses meet inner doubts, feel as vast as the ocean—quite an accomplishment, indeed.