Far from the resources of Hollywood (but also from its creative accounting and cycles of development hell), ordinary people have taken inspiration from predecessors like Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith and used today’s digital technology to make their own independent—indie—films. Their apartments are their sets, friends become their actors and, more often than not, relationships are their subject.
Joe Swanberg comes from this movement, and in a time of transition from the era of photochemical film, has helped develop a style of faster, more fluid shooting and acting—an aesthetic unique to digital video which its filmmakers can call their own. Having become more widely known than your average director-in-a-garage, his continued use of the indie/mumblecore form comes no longer out of necessity, but of choice, and therefore the form he continues to use has special importance—Nights and Weekends, (seemingly titled as much with a nod to the schedule these no-budget projects are produced on as for when its characters maintain their long-distance relationship), calls attention both to the story it tells and the form it is told in. How can a romance be explored better on-screen?
More than anything, the film strides to be utterly real. Scenes improvised from rough outlines play out in long takes as the dialogue meanders from one subject to another—seemingly mundane, but gently working to fill in a portrait of these two twentysomethings. There are inanities, but just what is relevant—or at least relatable—will probably vary from viewer to viewer.
The film’s sex scenes also work as part of this realistic depiction—Swanberg’s “effort to accurately represent the struggle of young people, people our age”, as his first Director’s Statement reads. That means no soft lighting and no saxophone music, which in my opinion ends up making the Hollywood gossip magazine frenzy each nudity-involving performance there brings look far worse than the performances here. Because this is a subject Swanberg is explicitly concerned about (see the conversation between a theater director and her actors in Alexander the Last), I would also add that the sexual scenes in Nights and Weekends have a great deal of dramatic expression and relevance within themselves (by revealing more about their characters)—the same kind of expression many Hollywood screenwriters ask for before receiving the same carefully controlled scenes that simply act as a plot point (in many cases, you could just as easily substitute a title card which says “the characters had sex here.”)
Back to the rest of the film. Among its mix of refreshing / relaxing / boring conversations, often about nothing in particular, something uneasy is brewing—you may come to notice that the film’s realism extends to the language of sarcasm, irritation and imitations couple real couples use when fighting. “This situation is not sustainable,” Mattie says; although the progression of ordinary excerpts includes a few good times, the last third especially reveals a strange disconnection between them—such as when she dresses and undresses in silence, before being startled by the sound of the doorbell. Here she is in a bad state, but then has to go to a photo shoot where she is asked to smile, and kiss. It takes nuanced direction to achieve these kinds of tonal shifts, these let-down moments when the background music in one’s head suddenly stops.
Greta Gerwig—actress, co-producer and co-writer—is there with Swanberg every step of the way, shifting from occasional moments of open frustration to several private breakdowns later in the film, and navigating all the fake and genuine smiles in between; Nights and Weekends presents its story in two acts, but knows that real relationships are never as simple as that.
What the film portrays is not always exciting, but its vitality can give a viewer in the right mood a viewing experience—a meditatively deep connection with the lives of its characters—that’s really worth having. There’s no melodramatic manipulation or last-minute quick-fixes; sometimes, that honest engagement is what a viewer needs, but it’s often more than the colossal industrial power of aHollywoodset can express. Because of all this medium has the potential to do, it’s good to also have some filmmakers who work in their apartments.