The themes one deals with in a film can sometimes be better than the film itself, and this notion carries true for Drinking Buddies, the newest film from Joe Swanberg. Best known for his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants filmmaking technique that has slowly grown in popularity under the “mumblecore” moniker, this project boasts his most notable ensemble yet, with Olivia Wilde, Anna Kendrick, Jake Johnson and Ron Livingston in tow. And though this style of filmmaking can sometimes have a negative connotation, here is a project that simply works well under that guise. One starts to fall for these characters and their naturalistic dialogue and connect to their drama. With a relatable scale, the plot focuses on two friends that have never explored the possibility of a relationship together – even in just a physical sense – but have sexual tension following them like a fog. Both are in committed relationships, and their own friendship creates a strain.
Set inside the world of craft brewing, we follow Kate (Olivia Wilde) as she manages the boys’ world of beer. She’s the pretty face for the company, dealing with vendors and bars, where their brews will be featured, while also hosting parties and functions. Being very familiar with this world, they did more than just work it into the film: it’s a functioning character and shapes how they interact. Luke (Johnson) is a brewer at the company, while their committed significant others (Livingston) and (Kendrick), respectively, are outsiders. Their company environment isn’t that different from any normal 9-to-5 job, save for the almost encouraged drinking in the workplace.
The way the dialogue flows, and the fact that Swanberg and company aren’t afraid of embracing silence, helps nail the relaxed tone early on. As these characters grow, their language evolves and we see how it naturally progresses across different days. Arguments make sense here because they reflect the real-life way they are messy and non-sensical at times. These are human issues, and the chemistry between all four leads is out of the park. The characters portrayed by Wilde and Johnson feel like friends that grew up together, ones that have always had a boundary that they never crossed.
With all that said, Drinking Buddies isn’t a film that’s easy to fall in love with. The structure doesn’t easily elicit emotion, however, the themes of a developing relationship is so well-acted that it elevates the entire feature. Those looking for a new exploration of some familiar themes are in for a treat. Sometimes we need the smallness of everyday life to make us realize how even the small things have a snowball effect on ourself and those around us. Here, Swanberg has shown us an entry into the mumblecore genre can be more than just a spontaneous film, but one that effectively explores gender issues, relationships and how we interact with one another.