Joe Swanberg is seemingly developing into kind of an alternative-Baumbach. Where Noah Baumbach’s films tend to revolve around a group of people chatting about their daily lives with a tone that can rub people as cynical and off-putting, Swanberg’s works tend to come across as kind-hearted, even if the subject matter is similar. Both filmmakers tend to write and direct pictures dealing with the ways we grow along and away from friends and family. While Swanberg hasn’t quite made something on par with Baumbach’s best (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, Frances Ha), his releases have become annual joys nonetheless.
Digging for Fire is another Swanberg success. It is a sort of melding between his Happy Christmas and Drinking Buddies, running with the interesting insights on marriage from the former and the erratic nature of new and old friends of the latter. The film follows Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Tim (Jake Johnson). They are a wife and husband who are staying at a luxurious home belonging to a client of Lee’s. With them is there infant son Jude (Swanberg’s adorable own son of the same name). What is meant to be a largely relaxing stay gets weird in a hurry as Tim discovers a rusty gun and human looking bone on the property. Tim wants to figure out if there’s more, while Lee wants to kick back, finish some taxes and enjoy some wine.
At the residence for several weeks, the pair eventually spend a pair of evenings away from another for some for the ol’ me-time. Lee visits her parents and sister. Tim has friends over, along with a ton of booze. Each one discusses the pluses and minuses of their given lives; raising a kid, pre-school stress, money and the like.
Swanberg’s film is a casual one, even if it feels like it could go a thousand directions. Long swathes of conversation are the playground, riding on the terrific ensemble for good measure. Amongst this bunch is Sam Elliot, Chris Messina, Anna Kendrick, Sam Rockwell and Melanie Lynskey. Key supporting players end up being Orlando Bloom as a man Lee meets one night out at a bar and Brie Larson as a friend of a friend that pops over when Tim throws a party. You get a sense of glimpsing into the small moments of all of these people’s lives, each one relatable in their own particular way. Though playing archetypes, the actors are given the rope by Swanberg to create a character. The calm tone allows for moody chit-chat as people stumble over their words and reveal blips of personal backgrounds to shade the scenes.
Still, Lee and Tim are the main push. Each one is specifically flawed. Lee has an innate resilience to compromise and yearning for free-time, with awareness that she might be turning a tad shrewish. Tim has a certain itch in his brain too, with a life’s a party attitude that gets him into trouble. Of course he digs into the oddity of the gun and bone, ignoring certain responsibilities and opening himself to other issues along the way. Swanberg and Johnson, who co-wrote the script, make sure to never demonize either party. As Tim has a dinner with Larson’s character that certainly has underpinnings of the shady, we are shown him raving about how much he loves his son. Equally, Lee is shown as conflicted about many a thing; really a person trying to find a certain balance in an ever-evolving existence.
All of this done with a certain light, human humor. The laughs come from things we the audience can recall happening to ourselves, be it the uncomfortable meeting with your best friend’s new mate or a sibling argument. What may feel quaint on the outside is riveting alive while amidst it.
Digging for Fire opens in Seattle this Friday at the Northwest Film Forum