Whereas many directors improve as their careers progress, Joe Swanberg’s films seem to be getting scrappier with each successive entry. In “Uncle Kent,” the mumblecore director downgrades to shooting on flipcam for a loose narrative portrait of apathetic amigo Kent Osborne that offers precious little resolution — in any sense of the word. Pic does manage to relocate the helmer’s usual inward-looking lassitude to a slightly older subject, depicting the newly-40 protag’s noble struggle to connect (read: have sex) over the course of an otherwise lackluster week. Acquired by IFC, Swanberg’s underwhelming Sundance debut will bow on-demand during the fest.
By this point, IFC has carved out a modest niche for Swanberg’s unique brand of artistic onanism, serving hapless customers his mildly titillating misadventures via VOD. Without troubling himself over such aesthetic concerns as clean camerawork, lighting and sound, these sexually explicit 21st-century relationship dramas typically cast Swanberg opposite attractive young actresses willing to work through his petty hang-ups onscreen.
While such a description could make Swanberg sound like some sort of modern-day Woody Allen, the absence of scripted wit swiftly sets the record straight in “Uncle Kent.” This latest effort applies the prolific director’s improvisation-based approach to a new character, patterned after lead actor Osborne (“Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “Nights and Weekends”), who wears a sweatshirt that reads, “In the real world there are no happy endings.”
Kent works in animation (as does the real Osborne, sibling to “Kung Fu Panda” co-director Mark Osborne), a job that fuels his resistance to embracing adulthood. After hours, Kent’s social life centers around Chatroulette — the luck-of-the-draw webcam site where he met lovely young journo Kate (Jennifer Prediger) — and the affectionate cat who shares his apartment.
By opening the movie with the cat instead of Kent, Swanberg earns 10 or 15 minutes of goodwill the film desperately needs to endear us to its sad-sack subject, and though Kent isn’t especially dynamic, he’s relatable enough that younger auds may stick around to see where things go. As for Prediger, Swanberg has a decent track record finding female talent (he discovered “Greenberg” co-star Greta Gerwig), and she certainly has potential, despite this underwritten first role.
As far as the character is concerned, Kent has nearly everything he needs: pot, beer and food. The only thing missing is physical connection, but he hopes that may change soon, since Kate will be crashing at his place for the weekend. When not calling her boyfriend back home, Kate encourages Kent’s flirtations, sharing stories of a lesbian phase she went through in college and accidentally giving Kent a peek at a series of nude self-portraits on her digital camera. At one point, she even expresses curiosity about Kent’s masturbation habits — a fitting analogy for Swanberg’s approach and a reminder that the director went out of his way to demonstrate his own technique in 2005’s “Kissing on the Mouth.”
Whatever chemistry these two strangers felt online fizzles in person. Though Kent desperately wants to seduce his house guest, Kate only responds in the context of Chatroulette and Craigslist, which leads to one of the weirdest first kisses in cinema history and, later, an awkward threesome with a complete stranger (Josephine Decker).
Swanberg may be doing future generations a service by chronicling the mundane details of contempo life, mixing drab fly-on-the-wall footage with material Osborne recorded via his own DV camera, though it’s hard to imagine auds being entertained by such low-key dramatics. While “Uncle Kent” feels genuinely attuned to the loneliness of its lead character, Swanberg’s style will have to evolve considerably before the mainstream shows interest.