Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies initially looks like it’s headed for The Big Chill territory, as two Chicago couples (Olivia Wilde and Ron Livingston, Anna Kendrick and Jake Johnson) drive up to a lakefront cabin. The former pair has been dating for eight months; the latter has been avoiding the marriage “convo.” There’s a high level of trust among this foursome, despite the fact that Wilde and Johnson, handsy co-workers at the city’s Revolution Brewing, are fast becoming more than friends. They’re not the only ones: When Kendrick and Livingston go off for a hike in the woods, they share a kiss that neither one seems to regret. Whether they’ll acknowledge this moment—to each other or to their significant others—is a matter that colors all the subsequent action.
Pivoting largely on this incident—along with a late-night bonfire Johnson and Wilde build on the beach while their partners sleep—Drinking Buddies is not quite Swanberg’s The Loneliest Planet. But it’s almost certainly the prolific mumble-maker’s subtlest film, structured around its characters’ reluctance to act on (or even speak of) obvious feelings. Swanberg, who wrote, directed, and edited, keeps finding ways to break his cast into pairs, pushing these couples closer to booze-fueled transgressions and taking full advantage of his viewers’ privileged perspective. Visually, the movie is also striking, thanks to adroit widescreen framing by Beasts Of The Southern Wild cinematographer Ben Richardson. (It’s rare to see suspense mined simply from the way two stars’ faces hover slightly closer than they should.) As usual with Swanberg, a fair amount of improvisational flailing is passed off as authenticity, though this time, an appealing—and, considering the director, uncharacteristically clothed—pro cast is generally up to the task. The movie’s seeming plotlessness falls away as tensions rise during a lengthy sequence of Johnson helping Wilde with a move. The entire film unfolds in a recognizable register of ominous hesitation; the results are a bit schematic but nevertheless hit on something real.