Before I get to my review I must first say I was eagerly awaiting this next Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig film with much delight. Two of my favorite people in movies right now. Joe is young director who I have followed the past three years. Greta is an up and coming actress and director and they previously collaborated on Hannah Takes the Stairs. They are both involved in the “mumblecore” movement. Mumblecore is a term to describe an American independent film movement featuring the lo-fi documentary style films about introverted post-college kids and their struggle with life. Andrew Bujalski‘s film Funny Ha Ha pretty much sums up the genre. I’m sure Joe and the gang are all tired of being labeled and lumped together like this and I apologize for continuing the trend. But it’s such a good way to explain to people what it’s all about and introduce them to these films.
I fell in love with the movement because it was stripped down, honest, raw, and real. It’s about as far as you could get from Hollywood and as close as you could get to the filmmakers themselves. I am big on authenticity, naturalism, and realism and get my inspiration from directors like John Cassavetes, Werner Herzog, the Dardenne Bros, Harmony Korine, etc. Werner Herzog talks about his quest for the ecstatic truth in his work. I really admire that.
Joe and his characters felt like friends of mine. I was inclined to see everything they put out, but unfortunately not everything they do is released on DVD or available online. Living in Cleveland makes it tough sometimes. So that’s why it was great to meet Joe when came to Cleveland a few months ago for the Cleveland Film Festival. He screened Alexander the Last, which was the first time he’s screened a movie in Cleveland. I have a good feeling he’ll be back again next year.
Alexander the Last was great for me because I was started to doubt Joe as a director. If you’ve seen any of his stuff, you know he’s not shy about his blunt sexuality. At first I admired him for his bravery and mundane portrayal of sex. It was different and progressive. But as I watched more of his films like LOL, and his web series “Young American Bodies” it seemed his characters weren’t very interesting and everything led up to the next time they had sex. Alexander the Last actually had real emotion going on. The exact details are foggy in my memory but I remember getting caught in the film and actually caring for the characters. It was awesome.
6 or 7 months later, I sit down to watch Nights and Weekends. The film opens with Joe and Greta (James and Mattie in the film) busting through their apartment door with their lips locked. They start to awkwardly undress each other until their both fully nude. Ok Joe, really? You aren’t fooling around with this one! You’re getting right to it I see. So I immediately started to doubt him again. The first 20 or so minutes I was getting annoyed with the characters as it seemed their dialogue was trite and forced. It felt like they were trying too hard to act “mumblecore” and it was getting stale.
But then it got interesting. First off, before I lose you, the film is about long distance relationships. James and Mattie are having one, and it sucks. We’ve all been there. The great thing about the film as it moves on is that it never really explains things. Perhaps that’s a trick to make me stay interested? Anyway, a year passes and things are weird between the two. I can never figure out if they broke up or are still together. Greta’s character has completely lost it and she’s very nervous and moody. Joe’s character on the other hand becomes confident and mature. The rest of the film got me rooting for the characters – which is something I always had a hard time doing in Joe’s films. I felt like I wanted to cry at times and I really felt tense and awkward at certain times. The film wrapped up perfectly (in my opinion) and left me feeling like I lost something at the end. Much different than the “meh, that was… interesting….” reaction from his earlier work.
Joe is really maturing as a director and I really can’t wait to see what he does next. Joe if you read this, you should totally come to my art, film, music fest on May 22, 2010. You are welcome to screen your work!