Joe Swanberg's films may seem frustratingly minor and self-indulgent to some, but he's one of the few independent filmmakers working today who understands how to reveal the shape of a relationship through the way two people talk to each other. Swanberg's characters hardly ever say anything significant, but neither does their dialogue break down into the compendium of self-defining speeches, blunt sex-talk, confrontational yelling, and clever quips that seems to constitute so much of movie chat, indie or otherwise. His characters talk the way so many ordinary young people talk: as friends who become more than friends, then can't figure out how to integrate real intimacy into their aggressively casual lifestyles.
Over the course of half a dozen or so shorts and features, Swanberg has learned to how to work these conversations into slight-but-effective narratives. In his breakthrough 2007 film Hannah Takes The Stairs, Swanberg brought some necessary tension to his usual milieu of emotionally arrested post-grads by introducing a love triangle. In his latest, Nights And Weekends, Swanberg and his frequent leading lady, script collaborator, and now directing collaborator Greta Gerwig dissect a long-distance relationship that dies, then gets briefly, sadly resurrected. First seen during a rare weekend together, Swanberg and Gerwig are making their usual transition from sexual bliss to mutual whining about incompatibility and the stress of trying to keep the romance alive. A year later, Swanberg travels to New York on business and reconnects with Gerwig, in a series of clumsy encounters where neither knows what role they're supposed to play.
To some extent, if you've seen one Swanberg film, you've seen them all; Nights And Weekends contains the usual mix of frank, awkward sex scenes and couples talking passive-aggressively around each other. (Dig this non-come-on: "Do you want to take a shower with me because you want to get clean, or because you want to 'take a shower with me'?") But Swanberg and Gerwig also have a gift for constructing the kind of moments rarely seen in contemporary American independent film. When Gerwig cheerfully shoos Swanberg out of her apartment so she can change for their not-quite-a-date, then crumples into sobs as soon as he steps out, it's both a powerful, beautifully acted scene and a critical study of what becomes of the noncommittal.