One can't help but want All the Light in the Sky to be better than it actually turns out to be. This unassuming little indie marks a return to the" mumblecore" conversation pieces of director and co-writer Joe Swanberg, and stars vaunted character actress Jane Adams (also co-writer) in a very rare leading performance. She plays the sort of quirky yet fragile characters that make us want to laugh with and protect her, but haven’t led to Adams as any sort of mainstream player other than her hysterical few years on HBO's Hung. Clearly, this is a film dear to her heart as it touches on aging and the superficiality of Hollywood, but this formless, momentum-free indie isn't just a snoozer, it's downright comatose.
Marie is essentially a stylized version of Adams; an aging actress in her 40s with a lengthy career that has made her a known commodity, but not necessarily a star. The few roles that were coming her way are now going to Kristen Wiig, but she's content to take gigs on no-budget art house films because they're better than nothing. She lives on the shores of Malibu, jumping out of bed early every morning, changing into her wetsuit (the film opens with some stark nudity) to paddle board. Her life is calming, free of entanglements, and more than a little lonely. It's also free of any excitement, until Marie's niece Faye (Sophia Takal) arrives in town for a few days. Faye is 25-years-old, an aspiring actress, and clearly someone who looks up to her experienced aunt, Marie revels in the chance to impart the wisdom she's learned from years in the business.
The film hits its high moments while Marie and Faye are discussing the many hardships faced by actresses in Hollywood. Marie was never famous, but she knows people who are, and the feeling of being left behind still stings her deeply. She reflects on her waning sexual power, and the effect it's had on her not just professionally, but in her personal relationships with men. Now hitting middle age, she's unsure of herself sexually and unwilling to make compromises with her life. She has an older best friend, a sort of Zen paddle boarder, who she keeps finding reasons not to commit to. Marie begins what appears to be a fulfilling relationship with another man, and when it gets too serious drops it like the veggies in her complicated health smoothies.
All of this should make for an intriguing character study, especially with a younger aspiring actress tossed into the mix, but the film is remarkably free of any drama. While Swanberg gives the film a naturalistic look and Adams fully embodies a woman still in self-discovery, there's very little that truly digs beneath the surface. Marie has extended conversations with an electrician that go absolutely nowhere, and there's the not-so-subtle comparison to her and the beautiful, picturesque beach homes slowly being worn over the years. Despite the many keen observations All the Light in the Sky makes, ironically it's too superficial to take us anywhere interesting.