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Less a character study than a chance to marinate in a character’s life at an important moment, Joe Swanberg‘s All the Light in the Sky offers only a glancing sense of the person his protagonist has been but is very interested in how she’s handling the transition between two very different phases of life. Built wholly on an emotionally frank performance by Jane Adams, the film offers satisfactions that have nothing to do with story — a good thing, since viewers expecting a narrative will find next to nil. The prolific filmmaker’s fan base will love it, as will some outside that clique, though the film has far narrower appeal than his recent Drinking Buddies.
Adams plays Marie, a middle-aged actress doing well enough to afford a small apartment above the surf in Malibu but, we suspect, not a hair better than that. (As we overhear a phone call with her agent, we see Marie accepting the likelihood that Kristen Wiig will get most of the good roles from here on out.) She paddleboards in the mornings, bums around with a free spirit next door (Larry Fessenden‘s Rusty), and puts herself to sleep with a laptop streaming lectures about world religion and psychoanalysis.
Marie is delighted to hear that her niece, twentysomething aspiring actress Faye (Sophia Takal) is coming to stay with her for a while. Viewers can disregard a few comments about Faye’s troubled dad: While other scenarists might only introduce such information if it’s relevant to later action, Swanberg’s improv-heavy tale forgets it immediately. More frustrating for a certain kind of audience is the film’s complete disinterest in introducing the story’s other minor players. As Faye’s visit gets rolling, characters pop up and drag the action crosstown without explanation. Soon, Marie is having an almost-sweet moment of awkward alone time with Dan (Kent Osborne), who arrived in the film from nowhere and returns there after a one-night stand.
More substantive is Marie’s friendship with Rusty, who is around the same age (though he has let himself go) but dates much younger women. In a conversation the likes of which are rarely seen in movies, Marie tells Faye that she really doesn’t resent her friend’s wandering eye. It’s biological; she gets it. But she does resent losing the power youth confers on women, and not just as it regards her marketability as an actress. Takal, the embodiment of the youthful magnetism under discussion, handles the exchange remarkably, neither brushing it off with false modesty nor pretending to feel her elder’s pain.
In the following scene, Rusty sits at the shore with Faye and discusses another sort of impermanence: “All these houses are going to be gone” when climate change raises the sea level, he predicts. He used to rail against human stupidity, he says, but has put in his time. Now, he thinks he’ll just “go to each beautiful place and watch it crumble away” before finding the next.
Generous viewers will tie these conversations to scenes in which Marie interviews a scientist researching possible sites for renewable energy installations. But that tangent (built around David Siskind, a real-world environmentalist) feels tacked-on, a thematic stretch meant to give the main story cosmic weight. Isn’t an unvarnished, no-melodrama look at Marie’s near-universal situation weighty enough?
Production Company: Swanberry
Cast: Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden, David Siskind, Susan Traylor, Ti West
Director-Director of photography-Editor: Joe Swanberg
Screenwriters: Joe Swanberg, Jane Adams
Producers: Adam Donaghey, Joe Swanberg
Music: Orange Mighty Trio
No rating, 79 minutes
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