Nights and Weekends

IFC Films

IFC Films

With the advent of digital camcorders and cheap editing software, anyone can make a movie. Anyone usually does — but most people are not capable of sustaining a mood and a relationship between their two leads as Greta Gerwig and Joe Swanberg do in Nights and Weekends. They co-wrote and co-directed, play the leads Mattie and James respectively; although Swanberg has written and directed several films as well as an online TV series, Gerwig never acted professionally before last year’s Hannah Takes the Stairs. This little film is a glorious testament to what two creative, committed people can make together. It also has a sexual frankness unusual in American cinema.

It’s positively French, Nights and Weekends’ attitude to onscreen nudity and sexual content. Any film that makes sure to show equal amounts of male and female nudity has a head start with me. But even the smallest European art house movies go to some trouble to show the wider world their characters inhabit. Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise famously has a young couple spending the night walking and talking, but that film was squarely located in a city. While James lives in Chicago and Mattie in New York, we see almost nothing of their homes, much less their neighborhood. Nights and Weekends shows two brief weekends in their long-distance relationship. The third act takes place a year later, after they have split up, when James comes to New York on a business trip. What we see of their relationship is sex, chatting, awkward dinners, sniping, and tears at the airport. Their interactions are very real, and the naturalist dialogue doesn’t sound scripted, with plenty of repetition, deviation and hesitation — what better way to show the falseness of most scripted work. But the tight focus on these two people does cross the line from careful attention into claustrophobic narcissism. Clever-clever banter lets us know how this young couple interact, but the stretching of the movie’s 80-minute running time adds nothing to what happens. What are they like when they are not together?

Other so-called ‘mumblecore’ films such as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha or Aaron Katz’s Dance Party, USA are also about young people in relationship crises doing little other than talk. However those films opened out the world their young protagonists inhabit so we have a sense of the whole world around them. Most of Nights and Weekends are shaky-cam shots so tightly focused on James and Mattie they literally fill the screen. There is almost no one else shown. Swanberg is an unaffected, powerful actor, but Gerwig is still too inexperienced to be fully comfortable interacting with others whilst in character. You can see the wheels of the plot turning inside her head. We also see rooms, but not apartments; an argument under an umbrella is filmed so we can’t see the park they are standing in. And we learn very little of them individually; Mattie jogs, while James does something with computer games. I was desperate for some space, some room in which to breathe. The fact that the film was made, and has achieved international distribution is very impressive. Next time let’s hope Swanberg and Gerwig open out their story so we can see the world, not just their characters.

© 2008 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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