Editor’s note: Sundance Curiosities is a feature designed to preview
films at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. Entries are written by
members of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism.
January 2015 ushers in a new year, but it also ushers in two new films by the American indie elite: Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach.
Titled “Digging for Fire” and “Mistress America,” the films will make their debuts at Sundance this month, screening out of competition in the festival’s Premieres program. With both Swanberg and Baumbach being fixtures of the festival circuit as well as Sundance guests in years past, these are two of the most hotly anticipated premieres of the program — but what does this mean for independent cinema on a broader scale, outside of the narrowed scope of the film-festival microcosm?
Continuing his commercial success since 2013’s “Drinking Buddies,” “Digging for Fire” sees Swanberg melding frequent collaborators with new faces being inducted into his inner circle, with cast regulars Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Melanie Lynskey being joined by relatively mainstream hard-hitters Orlando Bloom and Sam Rockwell. The film’s tagline is as follows: “The discovery of a bone and a gun send a husband and wife on separate adventures over the course of a weekend.”
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As Swanberg’s films are largely unscripted and dialogue is heavily improvised, they tend to have a buzzy, naturalistic feel that’s become his own, full of overlapping chatter and familiar, colloquial speech patterns. What’s interesting about his recent work — and what Swanberg is likely to offer us with “Digging” — is his capability to incorporate mainstream actors into the loose structure of his directorial domain, allowing for a breadth of performance that works against reputation.
This approach involves taking something familiar and putting it into a casual context, one that benefits from the accessibility and ease of its dialogue. It’s rare for a director can straddle the line between independent and mainstream so deftly, and “Digging” suggests yet another door opening onto the rest of Swanberg’s legacy.
The follow-up to Baumbach’s 2012 critical success “Frances Ha” — an exuberant coming-of-age comedy co-written by and also starring Greta Gerwig — was “While We’re Young,” which had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and hits theaters later this year. (Notably, the movie features character played by Adam Driver who’s reportedly based on Swanberg.) But now comes “Mistress America,” the largely cryptic product of Gerwig and Baumbach’s second collaboration, which unexpectedly landed in the Premieres lineup announcement in December to the surprise and excitement of the duo’s many fans.
Starring Gerwig and Lola Kirke (a breakout talent best known for her perfectly tuned performance as a rural cabin-dweller in last year’s “Gone Girl”), “Mistress America” is “a comedy about dream-chasing, score-settling, makeshift families, and cat-stealing,” according to the last line of the film’s scant plot synopsis. Whereas “While We’re Young” was studded with big names (Ben Stiller, Amanda Seyfried, Naomi Watts), “Mistress America” seems as though it will run in the same vein as “Frances Ha”: smart writing and sharp, dry humor, not precluding subtle and intuitive performances by its female leads.
Baumbach also operates on the same approximate wavelength as Swanberg: Name casts in smaller, more intimate roles. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney starred in the autobiographical “The Squid and the Whale” (2005); Nicole Kidman and Jack Black led “Margot at the Wedding” (2007); and the previously mentioned “While We’re Young” boasts an even larger all-star cast. In spite of this intimidating roster, Baumbach has scaled down for his previous Gerwig collaborations (“Greenberg,” “Frances”), displaying versatility and the ability to work in both modes — macro and micro — while remaining true to his honest, contemplative subject matter. The filmmakers’ career paths are unsurprisingly intertwined: Baumbach, a fan of Swanberg and Gerwig’s “Nights and Weekends,” produced Swanberg’s “Alexander the Last” before the older filmmaker integrated Gerwig into his own filmography.
Beneath the placid veneer formed by the appearance of their fairly divergent directorial styles, the Swanberg-Baumbach universe is a magnetic wormhole of quietly progressive indie talent — an exponentially expanding web of entangled triple-threat writer-actor-directors armed to the teeth with formidable résumés and tremendous, multi-faceted cinematic capabilities: Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, Jason Schwartzman, Amy Seimetz, Adam Driver, Kate Lyn Sheil…the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, Swanberg’s wife Kris, premieres her feature “Unexpected” in U.S. competition.
Joe Swanberg and Baumbach’s films seem to attract the very specific group of actors who oscillate between mainstream and smaller-budget independent films with ease and extraordinary versatility: Anna Kendrick; Sam Rockwell; Naomi Watts; Ben Stiller. These actors perform not only as their roles demand, but also as a chain of access: a bridge between the average audience member and the smaller, insular world of independent film. With the releases of their subsequent films, Swanberg and Baumbach thrust themselves into the unique position to breach both sides of the movie market, filling dual roles as indie auteurs and large-scale filmmakers.
With both filmmakers premiering alongside each other at Sundance, if the anticipation surrounding the premieres of their newest films is any indication, then January will be a step further in the increasing advance of American independent film going mainstream.