With his homemade aesthetics, meandering narratives and seemingly invasive filmmaking methods, it’ll be a while before prolific microbudget auteur Joe Swanberg finds safe harbor in multiplexes. But his latest work, “All the Light in the Sky,” displays a striking new willingness to meet his audience halfway, buttressing his signature style with clever pacing, solid technique and a deeply soulful lead performance from co-scripter Jane Adams. Though the film’s reach will be limited to fests and the director’s cult fanbase, this is Swanberg’s most accessible work to date, and ought to open doors for him outside the mumblecore ghetto.
Judging from some of his more indulgent projects, of which there are many (he released six features in 2011, among them a trilogy critiquing his own filmmaking), Swanberg’s greatest gifts lie in his rapport with actors. Recruiting a rotating cast of regulars for parts that typically feature extensive nudity, as well as improvised conversations that can easily turn risible, his direction clearly inspires trust.
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Rarely has his facility with his players paid off as well as it does here, and for once Swanberg’s often palpable sense of voyeurism is entirely absent, giving Adams free rein to craft a remarkably lived-in, unself-conscious portrait of a middle-aged actress raging against the gradual dimming of the light.
Anyone who has lived in Los Angeles for more than a few years will recognize the character type Adams plays here, though it’s never been articulated quite so well on film. A successful bit-part actress who never quite found her breakthrough, Adams’ Marie has done well enough to afford a seaside stilt apartment in Malibu, but it’s not a big one, and it’s clearly a rental. Though her hippie-like lifestyle and fierce regiment of homemade smoothies and paddleboarding has kept her in great shape, her 45 years are beginning to tell. She’s comfortable among freewheeling younger people at parties, but is beyond the point of wanting to partake in their fun. Though smart enough to recognize the predictability of her own encroaching midlife crisis, she can’t manage to stave it off.
Her low-key turmoil comes to a low-key head during a visit from her 25-year-old niece (Sophia Takal), who aspires to move out West and launch an acting career of her own. The film from this point on consists of a series of free-form latenight hangouts, long conversations and fumbling hookups, yet there’s always a sense that Swanberg sees the statue inside the raw marble. When it finally begins to take shape, via an odd but evocative solar-energy metaphor, one is surprised to realize how much emotional mileage has been traversed in a film with so little narrative incident and zero overt conflicts.
It’s often difficult to tell how much, if any, preparation goes into Swanberg’s shot selections, but his adroit framing here reveals a great deal of intuitiveness, and he does impressive things with what seems to be natural lighting. Though he often switches perspective to POV footage that his characters are ostensibly shooting on their smartphones — an essential Swanbergian technique if ever there was one — rarely does he lose the relaxed but structured pacing or the distinctiveness of his voice.
Though Adams is the obvious head-turner of the cast, Takal registers brightly with a comparatively skimpy character, and Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden and David Siskind do well enough as the men orbiting their lives. “House of the Devil” helmer Ti West has lot of fun in his cameo as a pretentious, debauched genre-movie director.