Still content to operate on the non-commercial fringe, Joe Swanberg conceives another lo-fi relationship study with collaborator Greta Gerwig in “Nights and Weekends.” It’s something of an overstatement to say they write, direct and star in this portrait of a couple trying to keep their long-distance relationship alive, since the duo’s improvisational approach reflects none of the polished dialogue, strategic camera placement or mannered performances traditionally described by those roles. But as members of the mumblecore clique, these DIY auteurs have earned a following online, which could attract modest theatrical business, not to mention potential on-demand and DVD interest.
For those acquainted with Swanberg’s oeuvre — which includes the Gerwig-centered “Hannah Takes the Stairs” — the sight of these two actors’ naked flesh should be nothing new. Pic opens with another of the helmer’s matter-of-fact sex scenes, as Mattie (Gerwig) stumbles through the front door of James’ (Swanberg) Chicago apartment after three months spent in separate cities. No bearskin rug or rose petal-strewn sheets here, just pasty flesh fumbling awkwardly on a hardwood floor.
The episode is treated with same lack of glamour as a scene of Mattie using the restroom which appears half an hour later, during James’ reciprocal visit to New York. Alternating between the two cities, the shoestring-financed pic illuminates moments of intimacy and tension in James and Mattie’s relationship with no indications as to when the couple met, how long they’ve been dating or why the strain of long-distance romance is worth the maintenance.
And yet, their situation is universal enough to be almost generic, allowing audiences to refer back to Swanberg’s earlier films, such as “LOL,” in which he explores the role cell phones, digital cameras and the Internet play in contemporary romance (the title of “Nights and Weekends” alludes to those hours when cell-phone carriers provide unlimited talk time).
Midway through, events skip forward one year to find the dynamic changed between the now ex-lovers. James, a vidgame designer, now visits New York for work rather than nookie. While in town, he carves out time to catch up with Mattie between an industry conference, a press interview and a photo shoot. The camera lingers with Mattie on the sidelines during these scenes, reflecting her unarticulated feelings of inadequacy and frustration as James’ life has taken off without her.
Empowered by digital filmmaking equipment, Swanberg and Gerwig are free to unravel the conventions of traditional Hollywood romances, depicting casual moments while ignoring the break-up altogether. Some may find the result boring or unpolished, but there’s poetry — not to mention a fair dose of comedy — in the mix. The duo’s attention shifts from soul-baring philosophical discussion (a la Linklater) or dramatic eruptions (think Cassavetes) to quiet, almost mundane observation. Pic encourages auds to read between the lines, ensuring that the film will be most profound to those who see themselves (or those they recognize) reflected in its more prosaic moments.
Still, “Nights and Weekends” reps Swanberg’s most straightforward project yet, showing a subtle evolution in style and form. Although many scenes still unfold within a single, handheld shot, lighting and technique have improved, and a number of the compositions are striking.
Fellow mumblecore filmmakers, including Jay Duplass and Kent Osborne, make brief cameos, but the pic rarely strays far from its central couple. The only music — a well-chosen “This Will Be Our Year” by the Zombies — sets the tone under the opening titles.