Joe Swanberg’s latest picture finds one of the most prominent auteurs of mumblecore zeroed in on some familiar themes. The core of Alexander the Last looks at the collapsing boundaries between art and life, between the worlds we create and the world we inhabit. Becoming immersed in the film, like so many of its counterparts, is a challenge, but once one surrenders to the aesthetic stillness – the experience offers its share of rewards.
It’s fair to question the continued viability of mumblecore in its current form, if only because the main figures are getting older and any cinematic movement born out of rebellious, democratic instincts threatens to lose its impact once it becomes institutionalized. Even the French New Wave didn’t last. Still, in 2009 Swanberg, Bujaski et al. are going strong. There are still compelling stories to tell, even those derived from the same small segment of the population (artistic twenty-somethings living in hipster enclaves; in this case Brooklyn).
Made in the characteristically collaborative improvisational style, Alexander the Last follows sisters Alex (Jess Weixler) and Helen (Amy Seimetz) during one of those brief, seemingly insignificant periods in life that grow in importance as time wears on. Alex, an actress married to out-of-town musician Elliot (Justin Rice), invites Jamie (Barlow Jacobs), her co-star in a new play, to stay at her place during rehearsals. A love triangle develops as Helen and Jamie become romantically involved and Alex copes with her own strong, confusing feelings towards him.
The filmmaker resists most digressions, with the characters only occasionally going on quirky tangents and the picture remaining grounded in a recognizable reality. The narrative benefits from Swanberg’s hyper realist M.O., characteristically featuring a lack of a screenplay, non-simulated sex scenes and characters conceived as abstractions on the personalities of the actors playing them. The approach, intimate and personal, helps engender sympathy for the major figures. Aside from a few forced, aggressively pointless moments their lives never seem performed and the director develops them with comparable care over the course of the film.
Visually, Swanberg’s work hews towards classical digital compositions with a healthy smattering of facial close-ups that give Weixler the chance to present a lot of her performance through reactions. Aside from the occasional montage the director never really asserts himself as a stylist; he’s more concerned with deferring to his actors, as well he should. Yet there are moments in which the form of the film enhances the content. During the rehearsal scenes, the frequent wide shots and crosscutting between the talent on-stage and the director and playwright in the audience communicate much about the inextricable bond between the performative and real world spaces of the film as well as the ways the play being rehearsed provides a window into Alex’s id.
A current of darkness runs through the entire picture. It’s most palpable in the countless scenes of the extensive, ongoing flirtation between Jamie and Alex. The sexual tension resonates, as they seem perennially on the verge of a big hookup. The filmmaker, in his capacity as editor, stresses Alex’s internal pain by intersecting their passionate rehearsed sex scene with a real one between Jamie and Helen and frequently lingering on her face just a bit longer than seems natural.
This sort of DIY filmmaking demands actors capable of carrying a picture through subtle communication and small moments without the crutch of major directorial set pieces. The verite sensibility places the narrative emphasis squarely on the depicted relationships, dissecting the minutiae of the interactions between the major figures. It means that Weixler, Seimetz and the rest of the ensemble must hold the audience’s attention throughout scenes stretched past standard endpoints, in which any dynamic developments happen far below the surface.
Fortunately Swanberg has assembled a group of collaborators eminently prepared to meet the challenge. Weixler possesses the rare acting gift of being able to communicate multiple conflicting feelings without saying a word. Seimetz complicates Helen by projecting levels of vulnerability in her scenes with Weixler that contradict the character’s popularity with the opposite sex.
Absent any major dramatic moments, and without once relying on the crutch of overacting, the women enact a sisterly bond fraught with difficulties but enriched by immutable emotional ties. Weixler and Rice are given comparably few scenes together, but the relationship between Alex and Elliot plays out similarly, with tenderness and a richly detailed eye for the real problems that so often emerge in a marriage. Despite the specificity of the milieu and the filmmaking style these truths give Alexander the Last an unexpectedly universal power.