John Cassavetes has been dead for nearly 20 years, but his spirit is alive and well and residing in a loosely assembled nexus of indie flicks most often coined "mumblecore" and characterized by ultra low budgets, ambling narratives and a largely improvisational nature. LOL is one of the better exemplars of this quasi-genre, with director Joe Swanberg offering an interesting and wry examination of how technology alters the dynamics of interpersonal relationships.
LOL isn't so much a story as it is a series of vignettes involving three twentysomething Chicagoans in various stages of technological dependency. Tim (Swanberg) is addicted to his Powerbook, instant messaging and perusing the Internet, all but ignoring his girlfriend, Ada (Brigid Reagan). His pal Chris (C. Mason Wells) is back in Chicago for the summer. Chris has his own teleobsessions; he is constantly on his cell phone talking to his girlfriend Greta (Greta Gerwig), trying in vain to get her in the mood for phone sex. The most compelling story thread involves Alex (Kevin Bewersdorf), an electronic musician so smitten with an online model named Tessa that he continually rebuffs a flesh-and-blood girl (Tipper Newton) who has a crush on him.
LOL (which means "laughing out loud" for my parents and anyone else not yet versed in Netiquette) doesn't scratch much beyond the superficialities of these situations. Screenwriters Swanberg, Mason and Bewersdorf have more modest aspirations. They tweak our ever-growing attachment to high-tech gizmos, especially when it comes to young dudes and the cocoon-like allure that is testosterone in cyberspace. The film's beginning makes that clear. We see streaming video of a woman doing a striptease, one of those online clips you might come across on an amateur porn site. Swanberg then shows us a succession of close-ups of male faces watching the video: slackers, computer geeks, grad students and the like.
A generation of guys unable or unwilling to take on the complications of real-life relationships are discovering the joys of getting virtually laid. The guys depicted here might want female companionship, and they definitely want sex, but not necessarily the heavy lifting that goes with both. Much better, it seems, to obsess over an unattainable online hottie or transform an inanimate object into a virtual girlfriend.
Swanberg's film isn't quite as biting as it could be, but that's not much of a criticism. Swanberg is so on-target in his social observations that it's sometimes difficult to distinguish the real from the satirical. Hmm. Maybe that's the point. The movie isn't for everyone. You need a high threshold for experimentation and low-rent filmmaking, but the adventurous cinephile will find plenty of nourishing material.
Perhaps the flick's most pleasant surprise is the so-called "noisehead" videos created by the Alex character. When he's not masturbating to images of the mythical Tessa, the musician-artist videotapes sessions of people making noises -- any kind of noise -- with their mouths. He edits the sounds and images into music videos with weirdly infectious melodies and syncopated rhythms. Swanberg utilizes the videos (which were made by Bewersdorf) as periodic interludes; while they might not really add much to the narrative, they're pretty nifty, nevertheless.
The DVD's handsome packaging by Benten Films deserves special mention: sparse, arresting cover art on a plastic keepcase with a thick paper sleeve and, best of all, terrific liner notes from Green Cine Daily's David Hudson.
Shot on digital video and presented in full-frame 1.33:1, the movie has a flat, naturalistic look that is by design.
Dialogue-driven, LOL doesn't require much in the way of sonic bells and whistles. Dolby Digital 2.0 gets the job done without noticeable distortion or drop-out. English subtitles are available.
Benten shows LOL some true respect with two solid commentary tracks. The superior one features Swanberg along with scene-specific contributions from Bewersdorf and Wells; the three reveal themselves to be thoughtful and serious-minded filmmakers, but their anecdotes are also fun and informative. A second commentary focuses on the acting, with Swanberg, Bewersdorf and Wells joined by Tipper Newton and Greta Gerwig (Wells' real-life girlfriend, whose appearances in LOL are solely via cell phone).
The extras also cast a deserving spotlight on Kevin Bewersdorf, who also served as the film's co-writer and composer. Kevin-casts (9:29), podcasts that Bewersdorf shot in Berlin, chronicle his artistic contributions to LOL. And then there are the strange and wonderful complete "noisehead" videos, which clock in at nine minutes and 47 seconds.
The rest of the supplemental material is for serious fans only. The Tipper Newton casting interview (7:42) offers some insight into what Swanberg was searching for in his nonprofessional cast. A seven-minute, five-second short, Hissy Fits (7:05), was shot by Swanberg as a sort of prelude to LOL's Tim and Ada characters. Also included is a slideshow of the artwork of LOL and nearly three minutes of additional music performance footage.
Far from the madding cineplex, indie moviemakers such as Joe Swanberg and Andrew Bujalski are fielding their way through a new and exciting, if occasionally meandering, approach to film. LOL might be undermined by its overly relaxed aesthetic, but it absolutely nails how improved tools of communication don't translate into improved communication.