To borrow the immortal words of noted author Jim Anchower, I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya. Stella and I had a really crazy few weeks at work, then I was out of town, and THEN Thanksgiving happened. In the meantime, I’ve been watching a few movies of the so-called mumblecore genre. Joe Swanberg & Greta Gerwig write, direct & act in most of these. I saw Hannah Takes the Stairs (starring Gerwig) and part of LOL (starring Swanberg). But, I was most impressed by Nights and Weekends, in which Swanberg & Gerwig play main characters James & Mattie.
Nights and Weekends examines a long-distance relationship (Mattie in New York, James in Chicago) that ends, and the aftermath in their brief reunion one year later. What is most remarked upon in movies of the mumblecore genre is how naturalistic the dialogue and situations are, at least with regards to this generation of mid-20s-to-early-30-somethings. Nights and Weekends contrasts most significantly where, in my opinion, Hannah Takes the Stairs fails. The dialogue and plot in Nights and Weekends is more subtle and sincere without being as self-consciously quirky as I found Hannah Takes the Stairs to be. Because it holds back with the quirkiness in this way, this film reveals more and delves deeper into the characters, and about relationships between white, middle class 20-somethings living in metropolitan cities. Mattie and James’s relationship is slowly revealed to the audience through a series of seemingly mundane situations and conversations-to the point where one almost feels guiltily watching like a voyeur, in a totally different sentiment that reality shows like The Hills try and notoriously/miserably fail to produce.
There was one scene in particular that stood out to me as very brilliant in this way. A year after the breakup, James finds himself in town and in contact with Mattie. James stops by Mattie’s apartment and asks her to accompany him to a photoshoot for a piece in a magazine in which he is being featured. It seems unclear to Mattie whether or not this is a sort of “date” or what James’s intentions actually are towards her. Because Mattie has become even more emotionally unstable since the breakup and James has conversely become more self-centered, insensitive, and egotistical (I suppose at least partly due to his evident recognition and success in his career), this is a particularly emotionally precarious scenario for Mattie, as she clearly still cares for James. Gerwig does an extraordinary job of showing, with few words, how Mattie is trying to be almost aggressively casual about the whole thing, though she is clearly falling apart inside, and is conscious that she’s making a bad decision by agreeing to go out with James. The second she asks James to leave her room to change clothes, Mattie completely breaks down sobbing in a way that I’ve almost never seen on film. This situation and her reaction to it were not at all portrayed in a melodramatic or soap opera-y kind of way, despite what the dramatic content may imply. Rather, I found it to be shockingly true to life– at least my life anyway. To me, Gerwig truly captures the struggle with navigating life as a young adult-trying to satisfy your desires and feelings while also battling with making mature decisions that may delay or seem even completely counter to your own sense of satisfaction or pleasure.
After what turns out to be a surprisingly more intimate photoshoot than either of them had anticipated, James and Mattie end up having sex. Instead of seizing an opportunity at an easy gratuitous nude/sex scene of make-up sex, as directors and writers, Gerwig and Swanberg portray this as an awkward and almost painful-to-watch encounter, weaving this directly into the complexity of the characters relationships with themselves and with each other. This is Mattie at her most needy, sad, and pathetic, and James at his most callous and self-centered. Again, the scene simultaneously avoided being dramatically over-the-top and uselessly quirky for the sake of quirk.
I think it takes a lot of bravery and good writing to critically and painstakingly scrutinize/examine ones self in the way that this movie examines characters that could easily be you or I to some extent. So at the same time I can see why people would write off the so-called mumblecore genre as self-indulgent and having its head up its own ass or whatever, I think there is a potential here to be sincere and honest-two things which I think Nights and Weekends achieved quite masterfully, owing much to Gerwig’s performance.