Nights and Weekends telescopes a year-and-a-half relationship into a sampler of chats, spats, and screws. James and Mattie are two kids in their mid-twenties, just feeling out the world; they’re played by the film’s co-directors, Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig. James you could imagine a few years prior, anonymously sitting on a dryer in a Midwestern basement, watching a friend’s band go through the motions. He’s blurry and blandsome, only his impish smile suggesting a capacity for deceit. Mattie talks with a coy, slurry drawl (pharmaceutical?), switching between boundless self-regard and self-hate.
For all the emotional flagellation they indulge in, it doesn’t seem that theirs is one of the great romances. The towering adversity they face is living in different cities—no A Farewell to Arms, this. “We danced a whole song with the rhythm off,” concludes one of Mattie’s non sequitur anecdotes late in the film, which should set the metaphor alarm wailing on anyone who’s ever been inside a creative-writing workshop.
Swanberg and Gerwig, along with a cadre of young filmmakers working along parallel lines (we’ll call it postgraduate naturalism—the accepted nickname is too stupid to repeat), show a heightened interest in acute cases of masculine passivity and passive aggressivity. As in Mutual Appreciation by Andrew Bujalski—who collaborated on Swanberg’s Hannah Takes the Stairs—the leading man winds up wearing lipstick at one point, though Nights goes one better, with James bullied into sex.
Looking beyond the squirmy exhibitionism, let’s allow that the filmmakers’ project is basically a good one: trying to create situations that dial up elusive, little-seen emotional frequencies (a/k/a The Truth) and catch them on camera. When James describes his instinctive sense that he’s sometimes wearing his father’s facial expressions, it isolates the kind of obscure feelings that screenwriters don’t often dig around for. And maybe these movies provide something relatable to some kids for whom “arthouse” fare might otherwise seem as antique and irrelevant as ballet—anyone who frequents the repertory circuit can tell you that audiences aren’t getting any younger.
But this packaging of facile recognition as The Truth can be awfully close to flattery, reinforcing a ghettoized and meager idea of reality. It is difficult viewing, as we’re told The Truth should be. Mattie and James are often unlikable: vain, petty, needy, petulant, tedious. The standard explanation is that this is life and people are really like this . . . but of course we are not talking about life—which is chaos at best—but art, a matter of selection. Why then, one may well wonder, did this relationship deserve a monument? Would the world be poorer if their pillow talk disappeared, un-noted, into the ether? The two discuss feelings and fears a great deal; not so much art, sport, pop, politics, philosophy. It’s an effective reminder of why most of us discuss those things constantly—it’s smotheringly boring not to.
Very often, the “rawness” here seems like an inability to distinguish the essential from the banal (or elevate the banal to the essential). A good eye might help, but Swanberg and Gerwig’s filmmaking is stubbornly disheveled. Like Mattie’s fussed-over bedhead, Nights‘ pretense of anti-style is a decision in itself. Watch Gerwig crunching potato chips through a scene, begging a viewer to notice how real it all is—it’s as affectedly casual as any of the “everyday business” in a Charles Schwab commercial. First encountered in laundry-day dress-down, James and Mattie later are seen tenuously adjusting to the outfits of adulthood. This is the point where (I give up) mumblecore’s I-don’t-want-to-grow-up aesthetic still wavers, afraid to articulate itself; these kids fear tripods like most twentysomethings fear neckties.
Swanberg and Gerwig cavalierly flash tits and dong, but until they take a real risk—range out of their diaries, stop obfuscating with underachiever strategies—they’ll never be worthy of their alleged antecedents. I refer the reader to Pete Bagge’s Buddy Bradley comics, perfect field recordings of hipster drift, or the lacerating film autobiography of Maurice Pialat, who could’ve eaten the whole goddamn mumblecore playpen in one bite.