My initiation into the Sundance Film Festival couldn’t have been better scripted. After a long day of travel and orientation, I was ready to see my first movie, so I waitlisted Digging For Fire and was number 300/300. The waitlist line at Eccles was buzzing with anticipation, and when the last group of us found out we were in, we let out a whoop! The only seats remaining were in the first few rows of the 1200 seat auditorium, and unbeknownst to me, I sat among the cast and crew as I ventured, for my first time, into the understated, down-to-earth world of Joe Swanberg. In the weeks since, I’ve further explored Swanberg’s universe through Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas, and I can see how Swanberg is an acquired taste for some and a turnoff for others.
Digging For Fire is classic Swanberg and honors the simple “rules” of the “mumblecore” genre. The film feels amateurish. Much of the dialogue is improvised. The performances are subtle. Yet, the story has a sense of charm and thoughtfulness about it. Watching it I felt like a voyeur, but not in a dirty way. It felt like I was sitting at Starbucks and overhearing every word of a benign yet interesting conversation from two people at the next table. Digging for Fire is a film about self-discovery.
When Tim and Lee decide to spend a few weeks at the beautiful home of one of Lee's yoga clients, they stumble into a couple of scenarios that allow them to be tested and to better understand themselves. While digging around in the yard, Tim discovers an old gun and a bone, and his imagination takes off. He can't let go of the idea that the bone must belong to a human and that there’s a mystery to unravel. Despite warnings from Lee and a bizarre neighbor, Tim continues to dig. Lee decides to go to her parents for the weekend where she faces her own test. I won’t spoil the surprise, but they each learn something significant about themselves.
What Swanberg and his cast seem to do so masterfully is deftly and believably navigate this strange premise. Tim and Lee are tested in ways that don’t feel forced into the story. They each have an epiphany, but it’s not a melodramatic moment with a soaring score to tell you how the feel about it. Ultimately, the lessons they learn are deeply personal, which they don’t even share these with each other. Digging For Fire is an interesting tale about love in an established relationship. Even if it's under the surface, the fire is there. Sometimes we just have to dig, and I think that metaphor is an ideal jumping off point for conversation for people who see this movie.
Anyone who’s been married long enough to get past the honeymoon phase understands that life is sometimes boring. The mundane things in life and the pressures of responsibility, especially once kids are involved, can zap romance. As Tim and Lee both experience, exciting alternatives are real. Temptation to be unfaithful is real. Like he does in Drinking Buddies, Swanberg invites his audience to take a long hard look at infidelity and consider the cost. In the end, and without being preachy, Swanberg has a message for couples that feel like they’re at a dull place in their relationship. Keep digging.