Digging Deep or Just Scratching the Surface? A Review of Joe Swanberg’s DIGGING FOR FIRE

While at a film festival a couple of years ago, I struck up a conversation with a fellow movie-goer and began comparing notes on the films we’d seen. We had different opinions on several and I found myself wondering if I wasn’t discriminating enough in my movie tastes. But then she said something that struck me and I go back to it time and time again:

“Movies are like wine. Sometimes you want something light and sweet, sometimes you want something darker and more robust. And if you didn’t like a particular blend last week, that doesn’t mean that you won’t like it next week. Wine, and movies, are always better when they complement your mood.”

Digging for Fire is like that wine you sip on the deck with your friends. All of them. (Really. As Peter Travers said in his New York Film Critics Series into, “Who doesn’t star in this film?”) It was light and entertaining, with a few hints of depth, but I found it far too cast heavy to really “dig” into the “plot.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

We’re introduced to thirty-somethings Lee and Tim, a yoga instructor and public school teacher, respectively, as they take on a house-sitting stint at the home of one of Lee’s wealthy clients.  This sets the stage for a weekend of soul searching by both, as they long (sort of) for their pre-child lives, struggle (sort of) to live the LA lifestyle without big LA money, and wander (sort of) into the temptation of infidelity.

As any married, with children, couple will tell you (myself included), these are timeless themes that offer a good base for a plot, but I felt like they were spread too thin and not fully developed. The best line in the movie is delivered by Lee’s stepfather (played by Sam Elliott). He said,

“What is love? Is it getting what you want or giving someone what they want?”

In reality, it’s both. I wish Swanberg had taken Elliot’s line and really built more of the movie around it. Instead, we’re given several instances where Lee and Tim are simply told that life is better without kids and without a spouse. The lone advocate for the perseverance of couplehood is the book, “A Passionate Marriage,” that Lee spots on the bookshelves of different homes.

In the interest of full disclosure, I really wanted to like this film, but having just seen Straight Outta Compton and Tangerine, two movies that show us the under-belly of LA, I couldn’t muster any sympathy for the characters or the story. How can I feel sorry for the yoga instructor, driving her shiny Toyota sedan and wallowing in pity because she’s feeling lost due to mothering a super cute, healthy 3 year old? Or Tim, who is upset that the LAPD won’t come to the house to investigate the rusted pistol and mysterious bone found on the property and who later has a party where his (mostly) professional, well-educated friends pull out a joint and later snort cocaine? The Saturday night recreational drug use by these relatively privileged white males is possible, in part, because of the violence and drug culture of south-central Los Angeles.

I’m sorry Joe Swanberg. I’m really not a discerning film critic. I am a suburban white mom and I should have loved this movie. The acting was great, a nod to the skills and talents of these actors who improvised a lot of the film, and the movie touched on some age-old questions regarding marriage and self-realization. This night, however, I needed something deeper and earthier.

When Susan’s not picking up after managing the many varied activities of her family, she’s hiding from them in a dark movie theater.
Follow Susan on Twitter at @senyberg
Digging Deep or Just Scratching the Surface? A Review of Joe Swanberg’s DIGGING FOR FIRE

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