Review: All the Light in the Sky
Completed in 2012 but just now receiving its theatrical/VOD release, All the Light in the Sky finds Joe Swanberg undertaking the same themes and formal strategies as ever. Drinking Buddies was made and released this past year, boasting actors far more popular than is usual for his rambling repertory. But as All the Light in the Sky demonstrates, it wasn’t the spendthrift auteur’s first dance with conventionally accomplished thespians: Jane Adams, who also had small parts in Alexander the Last (09) and Silver Bullets (11), incarnates the imploding star around which the “new” film’s world revolves.
For a filmmaker whose work is mostly about the overdue onset of adulthood, it makes sense that Swanberg’s first film to zero in on the subject of aging is only interested in middle age as the flipside of youth on the existential coin. Hard up for work and begrudgingly spending her days paddling out to sea with platonic friend Rusty (Larry Fessenden), Marie (Adams) is a Hollywood actress spinning her wheels after losing a potentially lucrative role to Kristen Wiig. But if Marie is undergoing a crisis, she’s weathering it more or less gracefully: she devotes herself to preparing for another part by hanging out with a solar-energy researcher and dozes off each night to the sweet sounds of the BBC’s TV version of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Adams is at once desperate, sympathetic, and compulsively watchable—that Marie doesn’t come off as a disaster speaks to the nuance of the performance and the humanism of the film as a whole.
The plot gets a jump start when Marie’s niece, aspiring actress Faye (Sophia Takal), comes to stay with her. Faye is set on marrying her boyfriend, Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine, Takal’s actual husband), but is having some difficulty grappling with the prospects of matrimony and motherhood—fronts on which Marie, never hitched and without children at age 45, can offer little in the way of advice. Through Faye, Marie meets Dan (Kent Osborne) and they soon begin a mostly physical relationship that culminates in her spectacular failure at sneaking out one morning-after. Faye herself is momentarily intrigued by the advances of a horror film director (Ti West, essentially reprising his role from Silver Bullets). Marie and Faye’s various quandaries resolve themselves without either of their respective situations changing appreciably. All the Light in the Sky strongly evokes a sense of life as an accumulation of petty impasses and anxious anticipation of major events (if they come at all).
Continuing the stylistic progression evident in Art History (11) and Silver Bullets, All the Light in the Sky traffics in a kind of low-key psychodrama, presented with a formal inventiveness that might surprise viewers who checked out after Swanberg’s two films with Greta Gerwig, Hannah Takes the Stairs (07) and Nights and Weekends (08). Though some of his meticulously composed tableaux (such as one of Marie’s car parked beside the beach) call a bit too much attention to themselves as Meticulously Composed Tableaux, the vivacity and spontaneity of many scenes reward his apparent faith in his performers to make it up as they go.
Swanberg seems resolute in his desire to be considered an actor’s director, but he’s equally concerned with doing justice to the profound impact of everyday occurrences: the way a MacBook screen illumines someone’s face in an otherwise dark room; what someone will say to convince a lover to get kinky during a Skype session; or the socially disastrous effects of constantly misplacing one’s personal items. It’s all very mundane yet too enthralling to deny.