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Sundance 2011. Joe Swanberg’s “Uncle Kent”

"I watched Uncle Kent for the second time the other night," writes Craig Keller in an open letter to Joe Swanberg. "Really impressed by it, once again, — like all good movies, it's better still the second time through… I think this picture is your most melancholy film so far. Or maybe not 'most' — but there's a kind of dark cloud hanging over the proceedings, same as in Nights and Weekends, and Alexander the Last too. That sense of: 'Little man (or little woman) — what now?'… The rhythm of the film is also superb, but that's something you've managed to nail from at least Hannah Takes the Stairs onward… You said: 'I hope it's a movie that people feel like popping in the DVD player every once in a while and just hanging out with.' That's exactly how I feel about this movie, among others you've made. For me, Uncle Kent's a kind of mood-booster — hard to explain."

"Swanberg and his collaborator Kent Osborne (an animator who's worked on Adventure Time among other shows) follow Osborne for a few days as he smokes pot, draws some pictures, goes to parties, shoots some video, and tries to get to know a possibly bisexual woman he met on the internet," writes Noel Murray for the AV Club. "The week progresses much the way it would in real life, with fleeting moments of humor alternating with boredom and awkwardness, but Swanberg and Osborne don't seem to be aiming for realism as an aesthetic ideal so much as avoiding any responsibility for shaping this material… There's a real movie nestled in here, tied to the 40-year-old Osborne's envy of his friends' and family's relationships and children, but Swanberg doesn't coax it far enough to the surface." Final grade: B-.

"Swanberg offers a dire view of erotic imagination under the influence of pornography as well as the risky fascination of sexual exploration and the uneasy morning after that follows," writes the New Yorker's Richard Brody. "[T]his is very much a guy film, a work of melancholy bromanticism, and Swanberg, filming with poised and poignant attention, outlines the limits of friendship and the limitations of solitary work as he beholds, with rueful tenderness, a fellow-traveller whose road has long ago diverged."

Nick Schager at the House Next Door: "As with the cast's semi-improvised performances, Uncle Kent rambles about in an offhand manner meant to evoke authenticity, but it's every gesture comes across as such an affected pose that no genuine emotion, passion, or depth emerges — like the image of the Chatrouletter gripping his manhood, or of Kent making weird shapes with his genitalia for an adoring party crowd, it's a portrait of stunted middle-aged maturity that comes off as a performance of self-gratification."

"More cohesive than his earlier works, Uncle Kent explores one man's overdue transition into adulthood with the same insight he brought to earlier movies that probed the nuances of young love," writes indieWIRE's Eric Kohn. "By aging his protagonist and deepening his thematic obsession, Swanberg has produced his most accessible film to date."


So. Mixed reviews so far for Uncle Kent, which screens in Park City in the Spotlight section and is available anywhere in the US via Sundance Selects. And in just a couple of weeks, Joe's Silver Bullets and Art History premiere in the Berlinale's Forum. I've got a hunch he may have a few surprises in store for us.

Update: "The gnashing of teeth and spewing of vitriol that reliably accompany every new film by Joe Swanberg are as much a sign of his artistry as the enthusiasm expressed by those of us who recognize it," blogs Richard Brody. "His films are original, audacious, sincere, and, in their creative energy, they express the filmmaker's aggressive indifference to those whose settled sensibilities he challenges (or, more precisely, ignores)." He points us to Glenn Kenny's Some Came Running as an example of a regular hangout for those who like to spend their time grumbling about Joe Swanberg and moves on, noting that, "in citing Maurice Pialat's A Nos Amours among his ten top Criterion titles, Swanberg adds, 'No other filmmaker has had such a direct and visible influence on me' (and, judging from his films, he's right to say so). It's proof that, even if he hasn't seen as many movies as have many cinema-studies professors or critics, he has a wise and keen grasp on some of the best and most powerful (and not exactly the most heavily publicized) work of recent decades — and, in particular, on a director who overtly and even angrily repudiated cinephilia as a source of cinematic artistry."

Updates, 1/22: John DeFore in the Hollywood Reporter: "A central exchange set in a borrowed LA swimming pool suggests a raison d'être for Uncle Kent that reaches beyond its middling comedy of sexual frustration: Kent, having just turned 40, explains to a friend (Swanberg himself) how his reluctance to have children remains an obstacle to finding a serious relationship. Swanberg and Osborne's script lets the theme drop, though, by zooming in on a romance that has little potential even absent the question of procreation."

James van Maanen finds it "all so loose and unstructured and tentative and, well, mumblecore, that — for every moment that perks there are another few that don't."

"Polarizing as always, fans will love Uncle Kent, and the rest just won't get why it is a movie at all," writes Sean Glass for ioncinema. "Swanberg is clearly content with this, and thankfully, he's a pro at what he does."

Updates, 1/23: Another open letter, this one to Kent Osborne from Glenn Kenny: "If not wanting to hang (either cinematically or in the flesh) with people who do 'cock tricks' at parties makes me a snob, then fuck it: I'm a snob."

For the AV Club's Nathan Rabin, "the film's meandering shapelessness is both an asset and a flaw. Inconsequential even by the low stakes of mumblecore, Uncle Kent meanders to an anti-climax, uncertain of what it wants to say or how best to say it."

"Those that are mumblecore virgins (or at least to Swanberg's work) are likely to find this a great starting point, as it's his funniest to date," suggests the Playlist's Christopher Bell.

James Ponsoldt interviews Joe Swanberg for Filmmaker.

Update, 1/31: Viewing. The Boston Globe's Ty Burr talks with Joe.

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Having Craig Keller comment on and/or review a Swanberg film is like having Jon Landau comment on and/or review a Springsteen album. Both are along for the ride.
Great write up, thank you! I’m a big Swanberg fan and it’s always good to see him getting some love. Uncle Kent and Art History are both wonderful films.

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