Review: All the Light in the Sky

All the Light in the Sky (2013)
Director: Joe Swanberg
Writers: Jane Adams & Joe Swanberg

I watched this mellow movie a few weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s a showcase for Jane Adams, an actor who often seems like the most fully realized character in any scene, even when she’s on for just a minute or two. I think she first caught my eye in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where she plays the beleaguered wife of the protagonist’s friend. She only has a couple lines but she suggests an entire life and marriage. She’s one of those character actors who, once you become aware of her, you begin to see everywhere. She’s been working steadily since the late 1980s, when she was a student at Juilliard. Looking at her IMDB, it looks like she supplemented a theater career with bit parts in film and TV, appearing in shows like Family Ties and Frasier. I associate her most with indie directors, especially Joe Swanberg, who directed this movie and is a frequent collaborator.

In All The Light in Sky, I think it’s fair to say that Adams is playing a version of herself. She co-wrote the movie with Swanberg and it centers on a forty-something actress, Marie (Adams) who is facing a career slump because of her age. She’s also in a bit of a romantic slump. She lives by herself in a small, beautiful apartment in Santa Barbara that is perched on the edge of ocean. Every morning, she goes out paddle-boarding, and is sometimes accompanied by her neighbor Rusty (Larry Fessenden), who seems to be nursing a crush on her. The precariousness of her apartment’s location echoes the precariousness of her career, but the instability, and the proximity to so much beauty instability is also part the thrill. Her life is wonderfully free and full of beautiful routines and rituals — like her mornings out on the ocean — but she also has to wrestle with anxiety and self-doubt as she weathers a dry spell. Her unspoken fear is that she might be running out of acting opportunities simply because she’s getting older.

The storyline is very low-key and is more of a situation than a plot. Marie has agreed to host her niece, Faye, who is interested in pursuing a career in acting. Marie will show her the actor’s life, and talk to her about the business. It’s a funny time for Faye to visit, because Marie doesn’t have much going on, acting-wise, but the two have a warm relationship and confide in each other easily. Marie is frank with Faye about her life and though she doesn’t discourage her niece, Faye seems to develop a new awareness about what will make her happy as an adult — and she realizes it’s probably not acting. Marie also seems to benefit from these conversations, as she’s able to reflect on her life choices and talk openly about some of her fears. She’s also able to revisit a little bit of her own youth with Faye, as she parties with twenty-somethings and enjoys a romance with a younger guy. This is very much a hang-out movie, and I loved the way I felt I was getting a glimpse into someone else’s life.

There’s something girlish about Jane Adams that shines through in every scene, a young-at-heart spirit that I really like. Maybe it’s a kind of open-mindedness or vulnerability. Through the character of Marie, Adams give us a portrait of what it takes to live a creative life; it’s not just talent or ambition, but a sort of irrational drive to express yourself, and the ability to cling to that, and endure periods of self-doubt. It also shows the particularly brutal form of rejection that actors have to deal with. We see Jane pull over to the side of the road to field a call from her agent, only to find out that she lost out on a part. In the same moment, Jane finds out who got the part instead. I can’t think other job where you reliably find out who was chosen over you, and why. I left this movie rooting for Marie, and for Jane Adams, and for character actors the world over. We worship the big stars, but often it’s the actors in small parts who give films their texture and liveliness.

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