Joe Swanberg burst onto the scene at SXSW 2005 with his debut feature, Kissing on the Mouth, a low-budget, lo-fi venture made up of equal parts verite drama, relationship comedy, and graphic sex. I enjoyed it the first time around; I loved it the second time around, when I picked up on all the jokes. One year later, Swanberg is back at SXSW with LOL, a slightly higher-fi relationship dramedy, with gadget fetishism (and gadgetry designed to facilitate fetishism) in place of actual sex. In fact, LOL is maybe most remarkable for the way it shackles the sex drives of its protagonists to their digital toys. If Kissing wanted to remind us that sex is something that happens in the real world, LOL wants to show us how and why it doesn't.
The director stars again, this time as Tim, a smirking young man with a beautiful brunette girlfriend and a seriously problematic attachment to his equally attractive Powerbook. The action takes place over a few days of a Chicago summer, and expands to include the misadventures of Tim's two friends, Alex (Kevin Bewersdorff) and Chris (C. Mason Wells). Alex, a video artist and electronic musician, is obsessed with Tessa (Kissing's ingenue, Kate Winterich), an online pinup with whom he's been exchanging emails; his plot to bring their online "relationship" into some kind of real space causes him to ignore the very real affections of a very cute girl (played by the exquisitely green Tipper Newton). Chris, home from college for the summer, is trying to continue his relationship with girlfriend Greta (Greta Gerwig) from 1000 miles away – despite his frustrations over her resistance to the ideas of sending him dirty phone-cam snaps or initiating phone sex.
As with Kissing, LOL is a true mixed-media collaboration. Bewersdorff created conceptual drawings for the promotion of the film (this is my favorite) and composed LOL's score (in one of the film's best scenes, he self-mockingly performs a recital for a crowd of four). Taking the concept even further, Wells and Gerwig are an actual couple, and their actual voicemails and phone-cam shots have made it into the film. This necessarily gives the two actors an edge when it comes to realism, but the other players (all without experience outside of Swanberg's films) are more than up to meeting the challenge. As noted, Newton is particularly good as the young Walter – watching her heart drain of hope is excruciating – and Bewersdorff is also excellent as the oblivious jerk who causes the disappointment. When it comes to this quest for realism, I've read reviews of Swanberg's work that try to peg him as Andrew Bujalski-lite, which is somewhat unfair. Though both young filmmakers are in some ways using naturalism to investigate modern (mis)communication, Swanberg's characters actively fuck with one another in ways that Bujalski's do not .(The Funny Ha Ha director actually has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role in LOL, as do Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, the hearts and minds behind Four Eyed Monsters.) You may find yourself in recognition when faced with either director's work, but Swanberg installs an unavoidable culpability in that recognition. You're much more likely to leave LOL with a guilty cringe on your face.
If Swanberg has an Achilles heel, it's that his formal experimentation (or, really, deviation) is easily taken for gimmickry. It was easy to latch on to the sex in Kissing on the Mouth, and ignore that film's deft balance of quiet humor and devastation; it might be even easier for some to roll their eyes at LOL's structuring sequences (which combine footage shot by friends and strangers, solicited by Swanberg over the web) and dismiss the filmmaker for allowing his content to be dictated by technical possibilities. The criticism wouldn't be completely inappropriate here, but it would be better leveled at the latest works of Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez; There's nothing here as distracting from the story as the latter's love of shitty 3-D – when Swanberg shows you what he can do with technology, he's essentially strengthening his narrative, by way of replicating it.
LOL, in Narrative Competition at SXSW, sadly walked away without an award, but word on the street is that a deal of some sort is in the works. You can catch it one more time, if you're still in Austin – its last screening is tonight at 9:45 at the Austin Convention Center.