Mistress America' and 'Digging for Fire' work on their relationships

Mumblecore filmmakers move on to mixed results in new dramedies

Thursday August 27, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Two films opening in Atlanta have their roots in the so-called "mumblecore" movies, which seem less like a unified movement than a fleeting moment in recent cinema. The term attached to the output of such filmmakers as Joe Swanberg, Lynn Shelton, and the Duplass Brothers, who began making low-budget, doggedly naturalistic dramedies about a decade ago.

Striving with some success to convey authentic human experience and interaction, the mumblecore directors never really followed a defined aesthetic, and would be the first to admit that they're continuing a cinematic tradition that goes back for decades. (Most realistic indie movies with low budgets could qualify as mumblecore.) Many of the directors are bringing their sensibility to more mainstream fare, but Mistress America and Digging for Fire show a little of mumblecore's origins.

All of the dialogue was improvised for Swanberg's Digging for Fire, a draggy drama about young married Los Angelenos, Lee and Tim (Rosemarie DeWitt and co-writer Jake Johnson). While they housesit with their three-year-old (played by Swanberg's own son) at a swanky home, Tim unearths a long-buried gun and unidentifiable bone in the side of a hill. Tim wants to uncover the mystery, whereas Lee prefers to leave it alone and takes the kid to her parents' house for the weekend so Dad can finish their taxes.

Easily distracted from his task, Tim invites over some friends (including Sam Rockwell as a bad influence), who eagerly grab shovels and head for the hill. They're like little boys with a backyard project until the party chicks with cocaine show up. While Tim seeks to rekindle his masculinity, Lee looks at other marriages and contemplates life without her husband. In Digging With Fire's view of gender, Tim's dreams seem to be immature and regressive, whereas Lee envies the more financially successful.

It's difficult to engage with Johnson and DeWitt's low-key, almost passive characterizations, and the film's metaphors about marriage couldn't be more heavy-handed. It also features an incredibly overqualified supporting cast. Lee and Tim flirt and consider straying with Orlando Bloom and Brie Larson, respectively, while Anna Kendrick, Sam Elliott, Jenny Slate, and Mike Birbiglia also turn up for brief appearances. It's like they made the film just for the pretext to hang out. (2 out of 5 stars)


Swanberg’s early muse and collaborator was actress Greta Gerwig, who reunites with her Frances Ha director Noah Baumbach for Mistress America. Gerwig co-wrote both films, which embrace comedic forms too overtly to quite qualify as mumblecore, with Mistress America suffering when it takes a right turn to farce.

The film’s intriguing central relationship gives it a solid foundation. Teenage Tracy (Lola Kirke), an aspiring writer, has trouble fitting in as a college freshman in New York. With her mother about to remarry, Tracy meets her stepsister-to-be Brooke (Gerwig), a flighty, high-energy New Yorker with a fast-paced social life and tons of creative ideas, but not a lot of money or discipline. Brooke can casually mention plans for television shows, books, and restaurants in practically the same breath. Gerwig captures a woman so used to talking, she scarcely seems to even listen to herself.

Like a remora, Tracy attaches herself to Brooke, partly because she finds her company liberating in the way that college was supposed to. But she also scrutinizes Brooke for literary material and writes a short story that, as her voiceover reveals, contains some harsh judgments. For her part, Brooke clearly enjoys having an audience, even though at times she seems scarcely conscious of Tracy’s feelings. The to and fro between the actresses conveys the complexity of the women’s friendship.

Both Tracy and Brooke have complications in their lives, including a would-be boyfriend, a jealous girlfriend, and rich friends, all of who come together in a sleek Connecticut manner. It’s like the characters abruptly set foot on a theatrical stage for a high-speed farce and while Baumbach clearly put effort in setting a screwball pace with snappy dialogue, it’s like seeing realistic characters teleported into the wrong genre. Mistress America leaves you wishing the film had tried to be less funny and more mumbly. (3 out of 5 stars)

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