Film Review: All the Light in the Sky

Low-budget indie from mumblecore <i>auteur </i>Joe Swanberg about a few days in the life of a forty-something actress and a 14-billion-year-old universe.

Deceptively loose and perceptively ordinary, this 14th feature in eight years from Joe Swanberg—one of the more familiar names to emerge from the mumblecore aesthetic—sneaks up on you. Its nondescript depictions of quotidian life gel into a big-picture story of humanity's brief spark of presence in an infinite universe. That he and co-writer/star Jane Adams do this without the least bit of pomposity or pretentiousness is a pretty damn neat trick.

In a movie as intimate, relationship-oriented, unflashy and reportedly improvisational as any labeled mumblecore, All the Light in the Sky, completed in 2012, advances that aesthetic's focus from twenty-something creative types to a forty-something creative type. Marie (Adams) is a middle-aged working actress in Los Angeles who's successful enough to live in an apartment right on the Pacific, but not so successful that it's anything but a "cheap rental" with the undecorated look of a crash pad. Some mornings she goes standup paddle surfing with her neighbor Rusty (Larry Fessenden), a cheerful, bald, overweight guy with a bad mustache who's refreshingly at ease with himself—and not in a funny, sassy "movie" way, either, but in a have-a-beer, look-out-at-the-ocean, accept-the-inevitability-of-rising-sea-levels-making-all-these-houses-including-mine-unsaleable kind of way.

He's just a friend, and Marie in any case claims to value not having to share her life—as someone else sums relationships, to her ready agreement: "Do I have to hang out with this person all the time?" Indeed, few things say "person alone" so much as a woman trying in vain to zip up a wetsuit's back zipper without help, as the leisurely eye of an unmoving camera patiently illustrates, bittersweetly, in the first scene.

One person Marie does want to hang out with, however, is her beloved niece Faye (Sophia Takal), a 25-year-old actress or would-be actress or something, who comes to stay for a couple of days. In the course of it, Marie meets Faye's friends Ann (Lindsay Burdge) and Dan (Kent Osborne) and has a one-night stand with the latter—again, very much not a movie one-night-stand but giggling-at-the-awkwardness-of-it-all first-time sex between two people getting to know and having a hopeful liking of each other. Or so it seems—because as so often happens, it's different the next day. Faye, loyal to her boyfriend (Lawrence Michael Levine) back home, gets a quick, painless lesson in that courtesy of a young director (Ti West).

Swanberg juxtaposes these transient, day-to-day events with contemplative shots of the beautiful, eternal, uncaring ocean, rocks and sand—all of which, like these people and their concerns, one day will pass. As if to drive this point home, a late scene has a solar engineer, who is helping Marie research a movie role, answer a question with a dry but ultimately soberly little lecture about how in a hundred years we've used up much of the fossil fuel the Earth spent 60 to 70 million years making—and anyway, the sun itself is going to go out one day. Talk about a big-picture perspective—and one delivered as naturally and unselfconsciously as everything else in the movie, including a scene in which Marie and Faye strip out of their sandy wetsuits to as complete full-frontal nudity as anybody can get.

That scene's no more titillating than watching Marie make kale smoothies or Rusty put his feet up, because of the sheer normalcy of having to hose sand off yourself before you go in the house. In the accumulation of such dull daily details, piled on moment by moment, day by day, as the years slowly pass and we die—and the sun evaporates, and all the light in the sky eventually, eventually, disappears—we find relative meaning in our lives. These are big themes for such a seemingly little movie—and the canny way Swanberg frames the final shot gives it enough ambiguity that, like life itself, that image could be either a tableau of momentary bliss or of a horrifying finality.