Although he continues to grapple with the themes of sexuality and technology that put him on the map, Joe Swanberg displays solid growth as a filmmaker in his first Sundance entry, "Uncle Kent." More cohesive than his earlier works, "Uncle Kent" explores one man's overdue transition into adulthood with the same insight he brought to earlier movies that probed the nuances of young love. By aging his protagonist and deepening his thematic obsession, Swanberg has produced his most accessible film to date.
The story features oafish bachelor Kent (Kent Osborne, a Swanberg regular and a writer for "SpongeBob SquarePants"), a 40-year-old animator who's living in Los Angeles and is unable to stabilize his aimless personal life. Spending his days surfing for chance sexual encounters on Chatroulette, Kent launches an ambiguous internet-based relationship with a younger woman, Kate (Jennifer Prediger), who already has a boyfriend. However, when Kate comes to town on business and crashes at Kent's house for the weekend, it sets the stage for an oddly platonic friendship that's destined to implode at any moment.
This being Swanberg, the strongest scenes in "Uncle Kent" involve uneasy sex and up-to-date commentary on the influence of new media on social behavior. When Kate tells Kent to "write on my [Facebook] wall" instead of saying goodbye, it's a pure Swanbergian moment, delivered without a trace of irony. Kent also carries around a Flipcam to document his life, a conceit that might seem precious but extends the naturalism of Swanberg's existing technique, captures small moments in Kent's life and shows how human behavior gravitates towards the emerging tools of personal expression.
The director's thematic obsessions can seem cold, but Swanberg's focus on Kent's encroaching midlife crisis adds a layer of emotion. When someone tells Kent that his life is a wreck, he becomes a sad figure whose online addictions highlight his fear of the real world. Kent is the life of the party (at one point charming a crowd with "cock tricks"), but he always retreats to his cave at the end of the day to find solace in his computer screen, his bong and an indifferent cat.
To a certain extent, he resembles Ben Stiller's character in "Greenberg" and "Uncle Kent" might seem like a response to that movie, since it borrowed Swanberg's original muse Greta Gerwig and fueled the notion that mumblecore cinema had infiltrated the mainstream. However, Swanberg doesn't let his film drag. Following Swanberg's eerie sisterly drama "Alexandra the Last," his new film displays the playfulness that made "Hannah Takes the Stairs" such a breezy experience. With a more refined approach to composition and dialogue, "Uncle Kent" makes a compelling argument for D.I.Y. aesthetics bleeding into the mold of a popular narrative.
Of course, no Hollywood-funded project showcases sex like Swanberg, but here his erotic indulgences include a welcome sense of fun. In a telling moment that pushes the boundaries of Kent and Kate's relationship, Kent finds himself left out of the equation in a goofy three-way and the scene pulls off the rare occasion where intimacy and slapstick humor go hand in hand. (His token contribution is the fondling of a foot.) In the absurdity, Swanberg demonstrates the aimlessness of a swinging bachelor past his prime.
Over the last five years, the flimsy production values and informal asides that characterize Swanberg's work have become the dominant model of alternative filmmaking in the United States. The downside of the mumblecore explosion has been an overabundance of imitation realism—shoddily produced peeks at young people talking about nothing. At worst, Swanberg indulges this same tendency, but "Uncle Kent" extends his abilities by moving beyond the ramblings of twentysomethings and updating his style for a broader audience. Rather than selling out, he grows up.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Swanberg fans won't be disappointed and the main character allows his style to reach an older crowd. Still, it's a relatively plotless depiction of a flawed man, played by a no-name actor, and contains glimpses of nudity that could easily make the uninitiated uncomfortable. Don't expect it to get much play beyond the VOD crowd that will discover it concurrent with its Sundance premiere—but that's still a significant audience for Swanberg.
criticWIRE grade: A-
"Uncle Kent" will make its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and simultaneously on-demand on January 21.