A constellation of cross-generational indie stars light up Joe Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky. America’s most prolific filmmaker has worked with just about everyone in the micro-budget world at this point, gathering many of them under one roof for this 2012 film made immediately before his first flirtation with the mainstream, Drinking Buddies, staring Anna Kendrick and Olivia Wilde (it plays the London Film Festival next month).
It’s certainly an impressive line-up. You’ve got horror icon Larry Fessenden (The Last Winter, Beneath) over there… oh, look! There’s Lena Dunham’s much more interesting, art house understudy Sophia Takal (Gabbi on the Roof in July, Green) talking with the breakout star of A Teacher, Lindsay Burdge. And man, after You’re Next, throwback frightener Ti West (House of the Devil, The Innkeepers) is popping up everywhere in front of the camera… I don’t see her, but I’ll bet Kate Lyn Sheil is hiding around here somewhere…
Most exciting of all, at the centre of this coalition of Filmmaker Magazine faves, there’s Jane Adams, in a rare leading role. Still best remembered by many as Joy, the do-gooder whose life is a cosmic joke in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Adams followed this with standout roles in acclaimed but little seen films like The Anniversary Party, and Songcatcher. While high profile appearances in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Little Children gave her little room to move, Lifelines finally put her up front, only to suffer a pitifully small release and is currently unavailable on DVD.
With smaller parts in Swanberg’s own Alexander the Last and Silver Bullets, for their third go-around, Adams has co-written this semi-autobiographical screenplay about an actress in her forties who loses a plum box office comedy to Kristen Wiig and has to settle for a shoestring production with a great script, a start date, and no money. All the Light in the Sky is about exactly this; adjusting expectations in middle age, settling for what you’ve got and realizing that it ain’t half bad.
If Marie’s career is stalling, her love life’s in a similar state. Past the point of seducing or waiting to be seduced, the closest thing she has to romance is her friendship with her Jack Nicholson-impersonating neighbour Rusty (Fessenden). More like a marriage really, and more functional than most relationships, Rusty finishes her sentences and knows how to make her laugh, but Marie can’t get over his constant reminders that men at that age are hardwired to ogle every twenty something who crosses their path.
So when her twenty-five year old actress niece (Takal) pays her a visit, you might expect Marie to turn into a suicide prone Blanche Dubois, especially since Adams can do that kind of sunken semaphoring in her sleep. Surprisingly, Marie is not another of Adams’ patented, twitchily neurotic personalities (okay, maybe just a little). Instead, she welcomes Faye into her beachfront home with welcome, loving arms. Not at all embittered about putting up her youthful competition, she’s invigorated by the company, a temporary solution to the toughest part of getting older: doing it alone.
Freely giving out career advice in a non-hectoring way, whilst effectively looking at her younger self in the mirror, Marie’s forties come into sharper focus and she starts to embrace her age. Frumpy but doing her best to feel fabulous about it, she hangs out with Faye’s friends and even has a fling with one of them. Like Faye’s passing visit, this upswing of mood is fleetingly bittersweet, but poignant enough to make Marie stop and take stock of what she really wants out of life. Where Joy was joyless and defeated, Marie is full of curiosity and enthusiasm, shadowing a solar engineer whilst researching a role that likely won’t even pay.
Jane Adams has never smiled so much on screen, and so will her fans after seeing her more frolicsome, free-spirited side. Decent parts for women her age are so rare, and the kind of leading role Adams deserves has been a long time coming – even if she did have to write it herself. Rest assured, Marie is a character worth waiting for. Hollywood, take note.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on September 23, 2013