Joe Swanberg’s ‘All the Light in the Sky’ is quietly cosmic

Jane Adams plays a middle aged actress not unlike herself in Joe Swanberg's "All the Light in the Sky." Credit: Factory 25
Jane Adams plays a middle aged actress not unlike herself in Joe Swanberg’s “All the Light in the Sky.”
Credit: Factory 25

‘All the Light in the Sky’
Director: Joe Swanberg
Stars: Jane Adams, Sophia Takal
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The many, many films of actual independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg (“Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “Nights and Weekends”) can blend together, feeling slight and lacking in meat. He’s an observational filmmaker but sometimes, as in his alleged “sell-out” indie “Drinking Buddies,” what he’s observing isn’t of particular interest. It can be easy to overlook when he does something fairly major, as in the case of “All the Light in the Sky.”

Typically Swanberg focuses on the young, but here he takes on Jane Adams, playing a variation on herself: a middle-aged actress just keeping on. Adams is a familiar face who typically plays comically awkward (“Happiness”) or comically sexpottish (“The Anniversary Party,” “Orange County”). Here she’s serious albeit open and naturally funny — her alleged real self. Swanberg (with a co-writing assist from Adams) looks in on a brief period in her life. Her beloved, twentysomething niece (Sophia Takal) is visiting her in her tiny, literally beachside Malibu apartment. The intrusion of an outside element — plus the sudden affections of a younger man (Kent Osborne) — threaten to change her life. But is it an out she will take?

Much of the film simply spies (with, atypically for Swanberg, camera on tripod, or at least held still) on Adams as she goes about her life, mildly flustered and alone but used to it. (More typically for Swanberg, there’s a fair amount of non-casually “casual” nudity.) Adams is magnetic enough that her every movement carries real weight. But the real shock is the effectiveness of scenes where she talks to a solar engineer in preparation for an upcoming role. He goes on about global warming and about how the sun is in its middle age and working its way towards a slow death.

Traditionally, this would be the time to complain about how these scenes spell out the theme — only here it actually really does shape what is otherwise a circular narrative. This is one of those films in which no one learns anything, because that’s how life really works. But the science talk actually makes it deeper — into a rumination on acceptance of one’s insignificant spot in the grand scheme of things, and an acceptance of aging, disappointments and ingrained personality defects that won’t go away. Adams’ character has come to be okay with being lonely, being shy, having a decent but not spectacular career. Without any apparent sweat, “All the Light in the Sky” is pretty cosmic.


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