Just when I think the world has forgotten about straightforward, unassuming, character-driven stories, along comes Drinking Buddies to give me all I could ask for. Joe Swanberg joins the growing number of mumblecore directors leaving micro-budget, do-it-yourself filmmaking behind, but not the lessons austerity taught.
Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake Johnson) work at a small midwestern craft brewery. Luke heads up the brewers, and Kate handles sales and promotions. Luke lives with his long-time girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick); Kate’s a few months into a relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston).
The gang at the brewery all get along, hanging out and drinking together. They all seem to be pretty laid-back, in that way of startups and artists — people working at a job they can’t believe they actually get paid to do. And when you’re working a job like that it can feel like a permanent vacation; you’re comfortable and relaxed, hanging out with your friends, and nothing really needs to change.
A weekend trip up to a Michigan cabin starts to shake things up. Chris comes back unsure about the future of his relationship with Kate, and Jill wants to revisit the idea of getting married to Luke. These developments threaten to shake both Kate and Luke out of their complacency, and a weekend together moving Kate out of her old apartment can only help matters, right?
Each of Wilde and Johnson delivers one of their best performances. Kate and Luke are two of the most honest and realistic characters I’ve seen on screen in some time, maybe since Lynn Shelton’s Your Sister’s Sister.
And maybe that’s not such a surprise, since Shelton’s and Swanberg’s careers have similar trajectories. Making films on a shoestring budget forces you to focus on telling real, engaging stories. Now that Swanberg can pull top-name indie talent and invest more in polishing the look — including Beasts of the Southern Wild cinematographer Ben Richardson — the results are fantastic.
I loved watching these characters negotiate the entirely pedestrian pitfalls of their lives. Real lives are rarely dramatic, and yet they can still be fascinating, and make for some wonderful, engaging storytelling. Filmmakers like Swanberg can remind us of that.
Oh, and it’s also nice that, for once, movie characters can go out drinking without it being used as an object lesson in the evils of Demon Rum. They’re just people: sometimes up, sometimes down; sometimes cool, sometimes frazzled. Not every misstep is a giant character flaw, and after we make mistakes there’s still room to get back up and move on.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.