Out of all the directors once associated with mumblecore, Joe Swanberg has stuck the closest to his roots, at least in terms of how he makes movies. Though he’s ventured into genre film (V/H/S, 24 Exposures) and worked with big-name actors (this year’s Drinking Buddies, the upcoming Happy Christmas), Swanberg continues to produce tiny, personal DIY features at a rate that’s sometimes difficult to keep up with.
All The Light In The Sky—which stars Jane Adams as a Jane Adams-like actress named Marie—is one of those projects. Set around Marie’s Malibu beachfront rental (assumedly Adams’ Malibu beachfront rental), the movie captures a few days in her life as she researches a role, paddleboards, flirts with her neighbor (Larry Fessenden), and hangs out with her twentysomething niece (Sophia Takal). As with most of Swanberg’s movies, not much happens in the conventional sense; the closest the film comes to constructed drama is a scene where Marie forgets her car keys at a one-night-stand’s apartment.
Swanberg’s drama allergy makes smaller works like this one something of an acquired taste; it’s also what makes them interesting. Swanberg served as All The Light In The Sky’s only crew member, which results in a completely unaffected, on-the-fly vibe that makes it impossible to distinguish between what (if anything) is scripted and what’s more or less documentary. No shot looks like it was set up, and, fictional names aside, it’s never clear whether actors are speaking in-character or voicing their own opinions. Like most of its director’s “smaller” movies, All The Light In The Sky has a potluck quality; the project serves as a quasi-fictional space in which friends and colleagues (Fessenden and Takal are both filmmakers, and Ti West turns up as the director of an indie vampire movie) can bring whatever they want. This plays off of Swanberg’s fascination with perspectives; footage shot by the “characters” themselves is a common feature of his films, and it pops up throughout this one.
However, two things anchor all of these varied points of view. The first is Adams’ role, which can’t quite be called a performance. She’s the central voice of the film, talking candidly and un-sensationally about what it’s like to be a fortysomething woman who’s never been married or had children, and about her changing relationship to sex and her own body—subjects that make most movies squeamish. The second anchor is a fixation on ecology and the environment, which is surprising, given the director’s usual focus on relationships and sexuality.
Long, wide shots of the California coast and a documentary-like subplot involving real-life solar power engineer David Siskind provide All The Light In The Sky with something that’s usually absent from Swanberg’s micro-budgeted works: a bigger backdrop. Large-scale anxieties about the future of the environment mingle with the characters’ small-scale anxieties about the present. The effect of this interplay will probably vary from viewer to viewer. As with Swanberg’s production methods, a lot depends on what you bring to the movie.