Some filmmakers invest in each new movie with a robustness comparable to a band making a full-fledged musical album, but Joe Swanberg’s lean, scrappy approach to each project — even as this year’s “Drinking Buddies” indicated a developing interest in bigger productions — often results in works resembling individual tracks. “All the Light in the Sky” is a B-side in the prolific young director’s career, astute in various ways without aspiring to much beyond a sincere desire to represent the emotions of its conflicted protagonist. A minor effort in a filmography largely composed of them, “All the Light in the Sky” is nonetheless satisfying on the terms it establishes early on.
Anyone following Swanberg’s output may find echoes of “Uncle Kent” in the thematic focus of “All the Light in the Sky,” which stars Jane Adams in the quasi-autobiographical role of aging Malibu-based actress Marie, a woman coping with changes in both her spirit and physicality. However, while “Uncle Kent” took on a largely comedic tone as it followed the bumbling exploits of a fortysomething partier, in “Sky” Adams’ character maintains a humble existence that dominates each scene of this decidedly more melancholic work.
Marie roosts in a lavish home by the beach and regularly traverses the waves on her paddle board, seemingly at one with nature. But the serenity can’t mask her insecurities about the slow advance of a midlife crisis, which stems from her inability to land the roles she so clearly desires. On the phone with her agent, she copes with losing one gig to Kristen Wiig, then begrudgingly accepts another that doesn’t pay.
Credited as co-writer on the project with Swanberg, Adams delivers a blatantly personal, warts-and-all performance that’s far more affecting than her previous minor roles in Swanberg’s “Silver Bullets” and “Alexander the Last.” However, the movie does have a certain kinship with “Alexander the Last,” which benefited greatly from Jess Wexler in a commanding lead performance that elevated the unscripted material above the meandering quality that Swanberg’s improvisational approach sometimes creates. Similar to Wexler, Adams makes the challenge look effortless: Her sad gaze says a lot more than any of the dialogue in this 78-minute sketch.
“All the Light in the Sky” compensates for a diminutive story by fleshing out Marie’s world. In the first shot, she wakes up next to her laptop and dons a wetsuit before heading out to sea. These initial images form the movie’s core by meshing Marie’s mindset with the rhythms of nature. Meeting with an expert in solar power to learn how to measure sunlight, Marie comes to understand the fragility of the world as an analogy for her own state. It’s a transparent metaphor but hardly oversold in a movie that comes and goes with gentle understatement the whole the way through.
The only semblance of a plot involves the arrival of Marie’s niece (actress-filmmaker Sophia Takal), an aspiring actress for whom Marie takes on a mentorship role. Helping her young friend through a hangover and warning her to appreciate her body while she can, Marie shows a modicum of confidence in her role as a guru. But the niece is never given much of an opportunity to apply that wisdom, since Takal’s character never gains much definition outside of a few scenes that reveal her conflicted relationship with her boyfriend. If nothing else, the niece serves the purpose of bringing along an older friend (Kent Osbourne), who provides Marie with a fleeting romantic interest and helps temporarily brighten her sullen disposition.
Prolonged sequences shot on iPhones and too many forgettable exchanges routinely prevent “All the Light in the Sky” from complicating the emotion generated by Adams’ perceptive turn. However, since the chatter rises and falls with each progressive scene, Swanberg casts a wide enough net to capture a number of striking exchanges set against the gorgeous seascape visible through Marie’s window (Swanberg, also the cameraman, sometimes seems more interested in lovely framing choices than anything happening within them).
Rather than topple the narrative, the images complement a broader atmosphere dominated by introspection. There’s plenty of insight hidden in individual moments to make the overall conceit hold together. Marie’s affectionate neighbor, played by indie horror veteran Larry Fessenden, puts it to her straight, describing her situation as “a pity party tear,” which could double as an alternate title for this somber, affecting work.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening in select cities today as well as VOD and iTunes, “All the Light in the Sky” may not make a dent in the box office, but could sit comfortably in the digital marketplace alongside countless other Swanberg efforts, especially now that awareness of his work is steadily rising.
A version of this review was published during AFI Fest 2012.