All the Light in the Sky

Microbudget auteur Joe Swanberg's "All the Light in the Sky" buttresses his signature style with clever pacing, solid technique and a deeply soulful lead performance from co-scripter Jane Adams.

With: Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden, David Siskind, Susan Traylor, Ti West.

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

All the Light in the Sky

Production: A Swanberry production. Produced by Joe Swanberg, Adam Donaghey. Directed, edited by Joe Swanberg. Screenplay, Swanberg, Jane Adams.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Swanberg; music, Orange Mighty Trio. Reviewed at AFI Fest (Young Americans), Los Angeles, Nov. 4, 2012. Running time: 79 MIN.

Cast: With: Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden, David Siskind, Susan Traylor, Ti West.

More Scene

  • Sean Penn CORE Gala

    Sean Penn Offers to Take Selfies in Exchange for $5,000 Donations to Disaster Relief

    A decade after the catastrophic 7.0 Haiti earthquake left between 50,000 and 100,000 dead and nearly a million people displaced, Sean Penn hosted the 10th anniversary CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort) gala, raising funds for international disaster relief at the Wiltern Theatre on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. “We’re not here tonight because we want [...]

  • Allison Janney Viola Davis

    Viola Davis & Allison Janney React to Lack of Diversity in 2020 Oscar Nominations

    Monday morning’s Oscar nominations rebooted the #OscarsSoWhite conversation, reigniting discussion about representation after women were shut out of the directing category and only one person of color — Cynthia Erivo — was nominated in the acting categories. At the premiere of Amazon Original’s “Troop Zero” at The Grove in Los Angeles on Monday evening, the [...]

  • Star Trek Picard Premiere

    'Picard' Stars Reveal Which 'Star Trek' Character They Would Get Drunk With

    The cast and creators of “Star Trek: Picard” turned out for the show’s premiere at the ArcLight Cinerama Dome on Monday night. In the spirit of the festive atmosphere of the night, Variety asked them which “Star Trek” character, past or present, they’d most like to pound a few Romulan ales with at the local [...]

  • Jennifer Lopez Laura Dern

    Inside the 2020 Critics' Choice Awards: What You Didn't See on TV

    ‘Twas the night before Oscar nominations and all through the ballroom, the Barker Hanger was buzzing as critics mixed and mingled with A-listers inside the 25th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards on Sunday night. Life Achievement winner Eddie Murphy, #SeeHer honoree Kristen Bell, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Bong Joon Ho were among the big names who played [...]

  • Taye Diggs Critics Choice

    Critics' Choice Awards: The Complete Winners List

    The 25th annual Critics’ Choice Awards gala, hosted by Taye Diggs, was broadcast live on The CW on Sunday night. It was a good night for both Netflix and HBO, with the studios taking home trophies for movies and shows like “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” “When They See Us,” “Watchmen” and “Succession.” “Once Upon a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content