If you have been following Joe Swanberg’s hyper-prolific string of micro-budget films, you may have noticed some trends. His trajectory has been less arc or staggered graph than ongoing, linear narrative. Faces and (perhaps more importantly) denuded bodies return with the comforting consistency of a long-running series. The actors and characters, practically interchangeable, live on the same street, regardless of their chosen metropolitan area. It was only last year that he really cleaned up and ventured out with the safe and satisfying Drinking Buddies (TMT Review). Arguably a conservative move, or one aimed at garnering a broader audience, it has been described as the work of Joe Swanberg the Grown Up. As if to reassure his friends and family, he has seemingly returned from a short vacation with the token souvenir, All the Light in the Sky (which, alas, isn’t a return at all: it was filmed in 2012, before Drinking Buddies).
A more apt title might be All the Waves in the Ocean, as this episode sits us down in a cliffside apartment in L.A. with Marie (Jane Adams), an actress aging out of her career. In typical Swanbergian fashion, All the Light Waves takes place over a few unassuming days during which Marie’s niece Faye (Kate Lyn Sheil) is visiting. Why is she visiting? It doesn’t matter. Reasons are not in his purview. This is just another chance to peek in the windows, hang out with her neighbor Rusty (Larry Fessenden), a wise-cracking bachelor, and ride shotgun as she prepares for a role with a jargon-tongued engineer. There are drunken nights, regretful kisses, one-night-stands, and cameos by regulars. In other words, that which we have come to expect.
Swanberg’s world is filled with everymen and nobodies, and Adams personifies that characterization as well as any of his past vessels. Stealing a page from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Marie’s identity and occupation as an actress are incompatible with the realities and artifices of age and beauty. But rather than shrink from this eventuality, she is battling it, willing to subject herself to a role that won’t cover rent. In the meantime, she has to explain to her naïve niece why she wanted to be an actress. This reflection, tinged with melancholy and wistfulness, is a flashbulb summary of how she arrived at where she is. It is a cautionary tale, but also one that fully expresses her past physical insecurities in a field that so highly values idealized appearances and aesthetics.
Marie’s self-image is filtered through Swanberg’s voyeuristic lens, and we see that she has shed some of this doubt while allowing it to morph into retrospect and concession. She is at the point where she just wants to get it over with — clothes off, leave in the morning. It is clear that she wants someone, be it her decidedly unattractive yet endearing neighbor or the handsome, recently divorced engineer. But she is more likely to take the easy route: sleep with a young stranger and prolong the illusion. This is her irremediable dilemma. While she is not necessarily full of contradictions, she is still full of conflicts and uncertainty. That is what we know about her. When she walks into the ocean with a paddleboard, she paddles alone.