Joe Swanberg’s All the Light in the Sky captures the daily life of Marie (Jane Adams), an aging actress living in Malibu who drives a BMW and paddleboards in a wetsuit every morning. Apart from that, her days are more recognizably typical: She opens up her MacBook before getting out of bed, talks on the phone through her car speakers, and tries to accept the fact that she’s getting old in a world where youth, and only youth, is power.
When Marie’s young niece, Faye (Sophia Takal), comes to visit her while the girl’s father is in rehab, they get to intensely talking about sex and relationships, and comparing boob shapes in the sunlight (Marie’s are saggy, Faye’s aren’t). Faye embodies so much of what Marie has lost, to no fault of her own, and everything she needs to be a successful actress. But in this disaffected little film, the drama is never explicit, or even fully conscious. There’s a way in which Californians speak about all horrific things in a very controlled way, and here the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, literally outside Marie’s front door, seems to appease existential anxieties before they can be fully articulated into something ugly. The horrors of aging, or of looking back and having nothing to show for one’s 45 years on the planet, aren’t exactly muffled, but expressed discretely and briefly, in a sigh, and promptly assuaged by a dive in the sea.
This sublimation of internal pain through the seductions of external life may in fact be the American experience tout court, and the California experience even more so. Swanberg’s beautifully shot film captures this dynamic without paying much attention to what it’s doing. The little that happens can sometimes lack the gravitas that should undergird the naturalism that the dialogue, the acting, and the sometimes-iPhone aesthetics aim toward. At times, All the Light in the Sky resembles the second part of Christophe Honoré’s Man at Bath, which basically consists of cellphone-quality shots of Chiara Mastroianni smoking on New York City sidewalks and hailing cabs. Here Marie strolls on the beach with her niece, gets guys to fix her toilet, and installs a towel rack in the bathroom. The casualness in both films feel only half-earned. All the Light in the Sky, however, signals toward a stronger conceptual punch in a sequence where Swanberg suggests a mirror-like relationship between an aging woman and a dream house on the shores of Malibu, both castles in the sand, slowly devoured by time or tide.