The so-called Mumblecore movement in independent film appears to be graduating from lo-fi curio to more honest-to-goodness relatable stories, albeit ones told frill-free and on a shoestring budget. Directed, written by and starring Mumblecore mainstays Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, Nights and Weekends is painfully familiar to anyone who has experienced the slow, sad demise of a long-distance relationship. Or any relationship, for that matter.
Swanberg's oeuvre, which includes 2006's LOL and 2007's Hannah Takes the Stairs, is admittedly not for everyone's taste. Like those previous efforts, Nights and Weekends feels more improvisational than scripted, and with camerawork -- long takes, poor lighting, an aversion to tripods -- that seems less like a film and more akin to the home movie your Uncle Jerry shot on his camcorder last Christmas.
And yet it pulsates with emotional resonance. Swanberg and Gerwig poke at the exposed nerve of an ill-fated love with precision and honesty. The two play James and Mattie, 20-somethings in the final gasps of a long-distance relationship. Mattie lives in New York City and is considering nursing school. James is a videogame designer based in Chicago. She is insecure and fragile. He is more circumspect about his feelings. Despite a round of on-the-hardwood-floor sex that opens the film -- the nakedness in Swanberg flicks tends to be figurative and literal -- the two lovers increasingly find themselves unable to satisfy the needs of each other.
Swanberg and Gerwig don't go in for backstory. We don't know how James and Mattie met, or how long they've been a couple. What we do know is that they only see one another every three months or so, and that the limits of time and space place considerable pressure on their periodic reunions.
Their initial exhilaration has a shelf life. The pair engage in the requisite cute moments, such as mugging to the camera in a photo booth, but the mood grows ambivalent when Mattie balks at meeting James' friends. "I want to meet them," she tells him in an apartment hallway, her mouth full of chips, "I just don't want to meet them today." But James goes, anyway, and later Mattie erupts in anger when she senses that he is humoring her. Now it's James' time to blow up. "I'm sick of you fucking crying every time it's not perfect," he snaps.
Dialogue and mannerisms, much of it seemingly improvised, are imbued with the herky-jerky, sometimes innocuous, sometimes loaded rhythms of real life. Viewers don't know much about these characters, but they definitely know them. Even so, the actors are mismatched. Swanberg is a talented filmmaker but less so as an actor, although his blank inscrutability might well explain Mattie's heightened neediness. Gerwig is remarkable, giving a genuine and affecting performance as a young woman who cannot stop thinking and rethinking every second of the couple's time together. "I could just be in your life like this story of this girl that you maybe once were gonna have a baby with," she tells James, grasping to make sense of her free-floating anxiety. "Maybe you wouldn't even mention that. Do you ever wonder, like, what story you're gonna be in someone else's life?"
No one would accuse Swanberg's films of being visually arresting, but Nights and Weekends reveals some interesting camera placement. In the aforementioned monologue, for instance, Mattie's back is to the camera, letting viewers concentrate instead on James' dumbfounded reaction. It is a provocative moment, one of many.
Halfway through Nights and Weekends, a title abruptly indicates a year has passed. The couple has broken up. James, who is in New York on business, reconnects with Mattie for dinner and hanging out. The ex-lovers are a mass of uncertainty, expectations and fear -- but a heartbreaking inevitability also looms over them.
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the digital picture is fairly typical of Mumblecore films. The tight budget reveals itself in soft images and some muddiness in low-lighted scenes, but such ostensible shortcomings seems part of the movie's hyper-realism.
The 2.0 track is serviceable but unremarkable. Volume is inconsistent in spots, but nothing distracting. Optional subtitles are available in Spanish, English and English for the hearing-impaired.
A commentary with co-producers Dia Sokol and Anish Savjani centers on the mechanics of making a low-budget indie; only sporadically do the two offer meaty anecdotes or delve into analysis of the film. The commentary is not without some interest, but insights from Swanberg and Gerwig would have been much more worthwhile.
Also included are five minutes, four seconds of Joe Swanberg teasers for Nights and Weekends. One of the teasers can be viewed separately as the trailer. Rounding things out is a test short (5:58) featuring Swanberg and Gerwig as their characters.
Nights and Weekends is one of the better exemplars of the so-called Mumblecore indie genre. Directors-writers-actors Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig cast an unblinking eye on the dynamics of a long-distance relationship withering on the vine. That might not strike some as an especially fun movie, but adventurous cineastes will find a modest film of rare honesty.