The Zone: Film Review

The Zone H 2011
Less is less in another middling mumblecore outing.

Micro-budget filmmaker Joe Swanberg debuted his latest project at AFI Fest.

Capping off his “Full Moon” trilogy of recent releases, micro-budget filmmaker Joe Swanberg’s The Zone world premiered at AFI Fest with little attendant fanfare, concluding a cinematic dialogue with his actors and audience that began with Silver Bullets and Art History, which debuted at Berlin earlier this year.

Given Swanberg’s well-established popularity with indie-leaning festivals, The Zone and its Full Moon counterparts will continue to appear on the circuit for as long as he decides it’s advantageous to keep them in circulation. Plans to self-distribute on DVD through Factory 25 starting with fourth quarter 2011 as part of a limited edition subscription service rather than relying on usual partner IFC Films will avoid the risk of a disappointing theatrical release.

Settling again into familiar, tiresome introspective mode, Swanberg plays himself as a filmmaker directing a trio of actors in a fraught relationship drama. Also depicting themselves are coupled twenty-somethings Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Sophia (Sophia Takal), who share a tatty Brooklyn apartment with Kate (Kate Lyn Sheil) that they refer to as “The Zone.” Joe’s no-budget film (a nod to Pasolini’s Teorema) about a visitor (filmmaker Kentucker Audley) who seduces each of the three residents in quick and unconvincing succession is unraveling, rent by jealousies among the intimate castmembers and his own self-doubts about his role as a filmmaker.

The by now formulaic nested narrative structure yields little stylistic flair -- unless shooting a few scenes on a mobile phone can be considered imaginative -- with Swanberg relying on rudimentary lighting, uninspired camerawork and rote editing, pointlessly undercutting the otherwise serviceable hi-def format. All around, the acting is naturalistic and unremarkable to the point of almost contradicting the concept of performance.

Despite his own frequent self-absorption and offhand creative process, Swanberg has forged a unique connection with his young, Caucasian, college-educated peers, many of whom face lives of increasingly diminished expectations both in his films as well as in real life, confronting a teetering economy and cratering job market. His direct depictions of youthful emotional turmoil, casual nudity and wary, semi-committed sexual activity are able to access a compelling authenticity few other contemporary filmmakers have been able to convincingly explore or replicate. Although collaborators may sometimes feel emotionally mistreated by is invasively inquisitive filmmaking style, Swanberg’s willingness to publicly critique his own creative process on camera is an uncommon approach that most filmmakers don’t have the nerve to attempt.

The laid-back, low-fi productions comprising the Full Moon trilogy may seem almost deliberately provocative, but actually represent the unwinding of a conversation that Swanberg has been having with himself and his audience throughout the series and indeed during much of his career. Whether anyone other than a small circle of friends, fans and followers is still participating in his self-reflexive dialogue is questionable however.

As a self-described “art film” director, Swanberg has set the bar remarkably high compared to the resources and creative vision he’s been prepared to deploy in his films thus far. In examining issues of art, intimacy and desire, The Zone reveals that Swanberg appears less convinced than ever of his own effectiveness as a filmmaker within the limitations of the mumblecore format.

Venue: AFI Fest
Production company: Swanberry Productions
Cast: Sophia Takal, Lawrence Michael Levine, Kate Lyn Sheil, Kentucker Audley, Joe Swanberg, Adam Wingard, Dustin Guy Defa
Director/screenwriter/producer/editor: Joe Swanberg
Directors of photography: Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg,
No Rating, 70 minutes