“Out of all the directors once associated with mumblecore,” begins Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the AV Club, “Joe Swanberg has stuck the closest to his roots, at least in terms of how he makes movies. Though he’s ventured into genre film (V/H/S, 24 Exposures) and worked with big-name actors (this year’s Drinking Buddies, the upcoming Happy Christmas), Swanberg continues to produce tiny, personal DIY features at a rate that’s sometimes difficult to keep up with. All the Light in the Sky—which stars Jane Adams as a Jane Adams-like actress named Marie—is one of those projects.” And he gives it a B.
Adams “will forever be identified with Joy, the inveterate family loser in Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998),” suggests J.J. Murphy. Marie “finds herself moderately successful but also very much alone. The visit of her twenty-five-year-old niece from New York, Faye (Sophia Takal), an aspiring actress, causes Marie to experience a minor mid-life crisis when she suddenly realizes that her life is on a downward slope. Marie’s small Malibu house perched atop the rocks above the Pacific Ocean serves as a kind of metaphor for the precariousness of her situation. As often happens to female actors when they hit a certain age, Marie is starting to get passed over for parts in major studio films, and has to settle for appearing in low-budget indies that have start dates but sketchy financing…. All the Light in the Sky is easily Swanberg’s most thematically integrated film, yet it might also be his most effortless. The flow of conversations seems as natural as the tide we watch going in and out, or the subtle changes in the bright California sunlight.”
“For a filmmaker whose work is mostly about the overdue onset of adulthood, it makes sense that Swanberg’s first film to zero in on the subject of aging is only interested in middle age as the flipside of youth on the existential coin,” finds Dan Sullivan, writing for Film Comment. “Continuing the stylistic progression evident in Art History (11) and Silver Bullets, All the Light in the Sky traffics in a kind of low-key psychodrama, presented with a formal inventiveness that might surprise viewers who checked out after Swanberg’s two films with Greta Gerwig, Hannah Takes the Stairs (07) and Nights and Weekends (08). Though some of his meticulously composed tableaux (such as one of Marie’s car parked beside the beach) call a bit too much attention to themselves as Meticulously Composed Tableaux, the vivacity and spontaneity of many scenes reward his apparent faith in his performers to make it up as they go.”
Adams “has been giving excellent performances for over 20 years now,” writes Sheila O’Malley at RogerEbert.com, and here, “Adams, yet again, commands the screen with authenticity and simplicity, but the film lacks commitment. It comes across as a pebble skipping off the surface of much deeper waters. The themes are treated casually, almost offhandedly, and while that is not necessarily a bad thing, All the Light in the Sky remains extremely slight in feeling and tone, afraid of its own implications.”
“This sublimation of internal pain through the seductions of external life may in fact be the American experience tout court, and the California experience even more so,” writes Diego Costa at Slant. “Swanberg’s beautifully shot film captures this dynamic without paying much attention to what it’s doing.”
“Credited as co-writer on the project with Swanberg, Adams delivers a blatantly personal, warts-and-all performance that’s far more affecting than her previous minor roles in Swanberg’s Silver Bullets and Alexander the Last,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “However, the movie does have a certain kinship with Alexander the Last, which benefited greatly from Jess Wexler in a commanding lead performance that elevated the unscripted material above the meandering quality that Swanberg’s improvisational approach sometimes creates. Similar to Wexler, Adams makes the challenge look effortless: Her sad gaze says a lot more than any of the dialogue in this 78-minute sketch.”
“All the Light in the Sky poses questions that are worth asking, even if we know the answers,” finds the New York Times‘ Stephen Holden. “Why do people build houses that they know will eventually be swallowed by the sea? How do we keep up our spirits with the realization that no matter what we do, there is no turning back the clock? Is it possible to deal with the future when it’s all you can do to savor the beauty of the moment?”
Clark Collis interviews Adams for Entertainment Weekly.
Update, 1/2: At the L, Henry Stewart notes that All the Light in the Sky also features “Larry Levine (Takal’s boyfriend onscreen and IRL), Larry Fessenden, Ti West (as himself), and Kent Osborne. So, this is a movie about movies, or at least the people who make them. But it’s not a weird, angry, passionate stroke of brilliance like the director’s Silver Bullets, a horror-hybrid in which Ti West also played himself, also trying to sleep with buzzy young actresses via the casting process. Instead, it’s a loose portrait…, not about the art but the people.”