With each new film Joe Swanberg makes—and as prolific and creatively fecund as he is, this is a fairly frequent occurrence—it is becomes increasingly clear that this micro-budget auteur is to American cinema what Eric Rohmer was to French cinema or what Hong Sang-soo is to Korean film. Like Hong and Rohmer, Swanberg makes intimate, meticulously crafted, and impressively acted features that employ similar methods of filmmaking and are closely attuned to the rhythms of everyday life, human relationships, and conversation. And similarly to those other two great directors, Swanberg also finds beauty and even profundity in the seemingly mundane details of daily existence, peppering his nearly plotless scenarios with subtle discoveries and epiphanies that sneak up on the viewer.
Swanberg’s latest release, All the Light in the Sky (actually completed and premiered at festivals in 2012) exhibits all of these wonderful qualities, and continues the remarkable progression evident in this filmmaker’s recent work in which each new film is a small revelation. This one is anchored around the beautifully soulful performance of Jane Adams, a familiar face in American independent film who previously appeared in smaller roles in two previous Swanberg features: Alexander the Last (2009) and Silver Bullets (2011). Here, however, she is featured front and center, and her crucial contribution is well indicated by her co-screenwriting credit. (Swanberg, it must be noted, usually gives his actors co-writing credit, acknowledging the improvisational methods he employs and his respect for them as equal collaborators.)
Adams portrays Marie, a 40-something actress who struggles with her awareness of aging and the reality that the roles that were so plentiful when she was younger are slowly but surely drying up. When we first encounter Marie, she has just lost a part to Kristen Wiig, and she decides to take on another role in a low-budget indie, where she probably won’t get paid, but at least it has a start date and a good script. Marie deals with her anxieties in part by living an ordered, ritualized life, where routine and regularity are a priority. She starts many days by climbing into a wetsuit and paddleboarding on the beach outside her oceanfront Malibu apartment overlooking the Pacific; she concocts homemade veggie smoothies; and she goes to bed to the sounds of her laptop, from which emanates lectures on religion studies and philosophy.
Into this difficult, but not exactly unhappy, situation comes the arrival of Marie’s niece Faye (Sophia Takal, also wonderful), who lives in New York with her boyfriend Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine), whom she is thinking of marrying. We learn early on that Faye’s father is in rehab, so part of the reason for Faye’s visit is so Marie can offer her some moral support. Other filmmakers would use this as an occasion for indulging in maudlin melodramatics, but Swanberg doesn’t fall into that trap. That information just becomes just one more element in the rich fabric he creates. Another thing Swanberg refuses to do is to concoct a rivalry between Marie and the younger Faye, who both happen to be actresses. Once again the scenario rejects the tired contrivances that lesser filmmakers would use as a crutch. Marie instead acts as a sort of older sister offering sage advice, bonding with Faye as they compare each other’s bodies. Marie tells her that she should take full advantages of the opportunities that her beauty and youth offer her, since such things won’t last for long.
Other incidents and encounters occur over the course of the few days or so that the film covers. Marie has a brief fling with Dan (Kent Osborne), a younger man and one of Faye’s friends, who also fixes her toilet and other stuff around the house, but with whom the possibilities for a long-term relationship seem rather remote. This is wittily indicated in a late scene in which a towel rack that Dan put up earlier suddenly crashes to the ground in front of Marie. Faye is propositioned, and briefly tempted, by a charming but essentially predatory indie horror movie director (director/actor Ti West). Marie has some conversations with her neighbor Rusty (director/actor Larry Fessenden), who at one point muses about how all the beautiful oceanfront homes in the area, including his, will eventually be swept away. He has long resigned himself to this eventuality, and therefore puts his energy into living for the moment.
Marie receives another lesson in impermanence by a scientist (real-life solar power engineer David Siskind), who tells her the light of the sun will eventually go out. These conversations form a cosmic, universe-level perspective, providing a philosophical, existential backdrop to the film’s small and often mundane incidents that subtly and inchoately deepen their meaning and import. This cosmic awareness recalls Rohmer’s 1986 classic Le Rayon Vert (known in English alternately as Summer and The Green Ray) in which the titular meteorological phenomenon is a crucial part of the emotional journey of that film’s female protagonist.
Similarly, Swanberg beautifully employs the universe, the sea, and other elements of the natural world to place his characters’ experiences in a larger context. His films have become ever more visually lovely, and here he does wonders with natural light and the seaside environment. All the Light in the Sky will not satisfy those seeking conventional drama, but Swanberg gives us more lasting, and more effortlessly sublime, pleasures: the unforced and naturalistic acting as well as penetrating insights into human beings that are allowed free rein without being artificially wedded to clichéd narrative conventions.