A couple of weeks ago, I started watching Young American Bodies, an internet series about a group of Chicago friends, their lives and loves. I wrote about it here. This “episodic web series” is produced and directed by Joe Swanberg and Kris Williams. I love the series, so PJ and I started watching Swanberg’s films.

The first one we watched was also his first feature, Kissing on the Mouth (2005). Here’s a ten-minute preview I found on YouTube:

This actually gives a rather lengthy taste of the film without giving away all of the best bits or too much plot, such as there is.

The movie is about another group of friends in Chicago. In this case, Ellen, played by Kate Winterich, has started sleeping with her ex-boyfriend again, much to her friends’ displeasure. Foremost among these is her roommate Patrick, played by Swanberg. The ex, played by Kevin Pittman, wants to be more than Ellen’s secret sex partner; he wants a relationship. In the meantime, Patrick is keeping a secret of his own, which irritates Ellen, who has nothing better to do than snoop through his things until she finds out what he’s up to.

Like Young American Bodies, Kissing on the Mouth is an example of an emerging film movement called “mumblecore.” Here’s a link to a great article about the genre; the article also discusses some of Swanberg’s work. As I wrote in a previous blog, I love this genre of films. I especially like its raw realism, that it seems to present characters who are more like real human beings than what you find in most movies. For me, this sense of realism is the fundamental criterion for evaluating these films.

Based on this criterion, I loved Kissing on the Mouth. I like its awkwardness and grittiness. Ellen is a little difficult to figure out — she has nothing to do all day because she only works on the weekends at her parents’ business outside of Chicago. Winterich imbues her with a certain sympathetic quality though. She seems to genuinely be trying to figure out her relationship with her ex; she’s not just using him for sex. I also think that Swanberg plays the everyman part really well. And Pittman is totally hot — it makes sense that Ellen would want to keep having sex with him!

Next we watched Swanberg’s third movie, Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007). Here’s the trailer:

This one’s about Hannah, a recent college graduate, and follows her through relationships with three men: Mike, played by Mark Duplass, who is unemployed; Paul, played by Andrew Bujalski; and Matt, played by Kent Osborne. These last two also happen to be Hannah’s co-workers.

I liked this movie a lot less than Kissing on the Mouth. I think the reason I liked this one less is that it seems more polished and better produced. It’s lost the raw quality that I like in the other works. However, after I watched the following clip of an interview with Swanberg, I started to like the movie a little more. I like how he describes what he’s trying to do in this film:

Third, we watched his second movie, LOL (2006). Click here to see the trailer. This movie is about the way technology — computers, the Internet, cell phones, even synthesizers — affects people’s relationships. It’s a really smart and interesting film. I really liked it too.

There’s a larger cast of characters than in Swanberg’s other films, so it’s kind of hard to describe the plot, so I’ll just quote the official web site’s summary:

Alex, Tim, and Chris view the women in their lives through the dimensions of a computer screen or the lens of a camera-phone, as they struggle to balance their online fantasies and addictions with the demands of real life. This up-to-the-second feature intimately explores masculinity in the new millennium, a time when young men are trying to decipher the mixed messages of modern relationships and technology. Featuring a nonprofessional cast, video contributions from people all over the world, and original music by lead actor Kevin Bewersdorf, this funny and thoughtful film offers an honest portrait of how the latest tools of communication can either help us click or turn us off.

One fun part of the movie is that we get to see and hear the musical creations of Bewersdorf, who asks people to video tape themselves making random noises; he then puts bits and pieces of various video clips together to make a musical composition. It’s fascinating and actually very good music.

I recommend all three films. Many of the actors in Swanberg’s films are themselves film makers. So, we’ve started branching out to watch their movies too. So far we’ve only watched Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha, which I’ll try to write about soon. So far, I really like this genre. And the more we watch, the more we learn about other film makers that we want to see. Not a bad way to spend the summer!