Joe Swanberg has built a reputation as a low-budget filmmaker who crafts improvised stories with shoestring budgets. This description is true, but doesn’t accurately describe what makes his films unique. Few directors are willing to showcase the everyday obstacles that can doom promising relationships. With each successive picture, Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, Nights and Weekends) continues to explore the perils to young love that lurk around every corner.
Alexander the Last is Swanberg’s sixth feature and possibly his most accessible work yet. However, it still focuses on similar issues of love and conflict that occupy his interest. Clocking in at a brisk 72-minutes, the story focuses on a few main characters and pushes the rest to the background. The central figure is Alex (Jess Weixler), an actress married to a musician (Bishop Allen’s Justin Rice). While he’s gone for weeks on tour, she flirts with Jamie, her co-star in a small local theater production. Played by the hulking Barlow Jacobs, he seems pretty dim, but how can Alex resist his laid-back charm?
This film also tackles how actors balance the fake romances of their characters while trying to maintain a separate relationship away from work. Alex and Jamie spend much of the day making out and rehearsing their love scenes, which brings uncomfortable feelings to the surface. Pushing Jamie towards her gorgeous sister Hellen (Amy Seimetz), Alex creates an even more difficult situation. While increasing strains in her marriage, she also damages a close relationship with her sister. The once-playful young women now become competitors aiming for the intentions of a fairly oblivious hunk.
Swanberg offered serious relationship turmoil in the drama Nights and Weekends, but this time he employs a lighter tone to cover similar territory. He shoots lengthy scenes that reveal the changing relationships through body language and subtle glances. One key sequence presents an intriguing counterpoint between a real sexual encounter and the on-stage fakery. Swanberg intercuts sex between Jamie and Hellen with Alex’s staged make-out with him. Though one side shows the real action, it’s not clear that their connection is actually stronger.
In his DVD commentary, Swanberg discusses his lack of interest (and ability) to focus on a film’s narrative structure. His low-key statements reveal a lack of pretension that keeps his films light while tackling heavy issues. A basic outline of the story exists during the production, but the actors help to create the final product. Some of Alexander the Last’s best moments involve Rice and his band-mate (played by the Shivers’ Jo Schornikow) creating music while the story happens around them. With little scripting and lots of random footage, Swanberg crafts a thin story into something more affecting.
The narrative limitations make Alexander the Last a divisive film that completely alienates viewers looking for a more standard romance. The build-up of Alex and Jamie’s chemistry is effective, but the abrupt ending diminishes the earlier scenes. We’ve learned so little about her husband that any reconciliation doesn’t carry much weight. Weixler (Teeth) creates a believable character that’s easily the most interesting in the film. By the end, we’re unsure if she’s reached a new stage of life or is just participating in a circular structure. Will the next Jamie attract Alex and start the process again? These questions don’t need answering, though a few more hints might increase the emotional impact.
This DVD also includes a random collection of deleted scenes that add little to our experience. However, they do offer glimpses at the wide array of footage that Swanberg shot, which could have led to a much-different film. His style conveys a believable environment and lacks the gloss of many studio indie pictures. Alexander the Last raises compelling questions about the roles of actors and how it affects their life away from the stage. There’s a haphazard feeling that limits the impact, though that same mood is what makes Swanberg’s art notable. The results can be inconsistent, but he continues to explore original territory with each new picture.