I reviewed the 2017 Best Picture nominee Lady Bird back in July. It was darn awesome. It starred Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in a coming-of-age drama written by actress Greta Gerwig. Gerwig also headed the film in her solo-directional debut. But nine years before she went out on her own to tackle a film, she made her true debut as head honcho as co-director of the 2008 mumblecore, relationship drama Nights and Weekends.
She shared co-directing duties with Joe Swanberg, who “co-wrote” the film with Gerwig and who’s made a career out of micro-budget films like LOL (2006) and Hannah Take the Stairs. Both featured Gerwig in roles that established her in the business even if they didn’t bring her to the prominence she’s at now. Gerwig co-wrote Hannah Take the Stairs, as well, and with Swanberg’s next film Nights and Weekends, she also took on directing.
Now, I placed co-wrote in quotation marks earlier because mumblecore films can, (but aren’t required to), feature prominent use of adlibbing. I couldn’t verify whether Nights and Weekends was mostly or entirely adlibbed or tightly scripted. Based on the natural way characters are speaking and the prevalence of “uhs” and “ums,” I’m guessing adlibbing played a part. Then again, Hannah Take the Stairs features seven writing credits for actors adding “additional material,” which I’m assuming were adlibs, so maybe I’m talking out of my rear.
Anyway, Nights and Weekends follows Mattie (Gerwig) and James (Swanberg), a long-distance couple who live in Chicago (Mattie) and New York (James). The films first-half shows us the two together and seemingly happy but struggling a little to continue with the long-distance thing. The second-half takes place (and was filmed) a year later after they’ve broken up. They’re just friends at this point, but they still share a bond and there might be a chance to rekindle their romance. And that’s pretty much it. Mumblecore is known for focusing on dialogue and characters over plot. As such, Nights and Weekends is a Follow People Around Movie (trademark me), where we follow the characters around during their day-to-day lives with no plot in sight.
For those like me coming into this after seeing Lady Bird, a warning: this is different. Very different. Gerwig stuck strictly to her script for Lady Bird. She and Swanberg seem far looser in Nights and Weekends. Lady Bird is structured with a beginning, middle and end. Nights and Weekends isn’t. IAC Films gave Gerwig $10 million for Lady Bird. Swanberg and Gerwig had only $15,000 for Nights and Weekends. Lady Bird featured locations and sets. Nights and Weekends is mostly shot indoors in actual interiors and not sets. When they do venture outdoors, Gerwig and Swanberg position the camera so close to themselves that you can barely see anything but them (I’m assuming this was done partially for cost to avoid having to pay to feature various businesses and copyrighted things in the film). Lady Bird is mostly straightforward and clear. Nights and Weekends is filled with swaths of ambiguity.
None of this makes Nights and Weekends better or worse than Lady Bird. It just means it’s different. Nights and Weekends’ bare-bones aesthetic fits it just as Lady Bird’s more refined, idealized style fits it. Nights and Weekends’ camera stays close to its actors, but that’s fine. It keeps the story intimate and character-focused. The micro-budget works to the film’s advantage, too. The low budget cameras and prominent hand-held photography almost makes you feel like this is a documentary filmed by some friend of the main characters as he follows the real-life couple. That meshes well with the naturalistic acting style from Gerwig and Swanberg and the (probably) adlibbed dialogue. Most importantly, Swanberg and Gerwig appropriately keep everything simple externally but complex internally.
Our lives are rarely filled with the excitement put forth on the big or small screen. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t going through some intense crap mentally and emotionally. Nights and Weekends follows that reality. Mattie, during the film’s first-half, loves James (and vice-versa) but wonders how long their relationship can continue when it’s forced to constantly undergo the emotional toll of constant separation and too little time together. The two are obviously happy when things are working but are struggling to keep things that way. They talk. They tell each other personal details about themselves and their past. They grow closer. But they still talk about topics like “How do you think people describe you to others after your relationship is over.”
Just friends in the second-half, Mattie and James carry clear sadness and regret that they can’t still be together, Mattie breaking down multiple times once out of James’ sight. During this emotional turmoil, they go about things like everything is fine. There’s a desire to start things back up but also doubt that that’s the right way to go. Could they make it work again or will romance only bring more pain? It’s agonizingly faithful to the ups and downs of actual relationships that emotionally tear up those involved.
Nights and Weekends can leave you uncomfortable and sad as it brings to the surface memories of your own failed relationships. But its complex characters and honesty keeps you watching as you want to see how things will go for these two. Like life, the film doesn’t give you clear answers, but, also like life, it’s rarely uninteresting.