By Jessica Baxter | February 3, 2011

Say what you will about Mumblecore. Though I usually enjoy it, chances are I’ll agree with you. It’s a challenging genre. Auteur, Joe Swanberg is known as one of its heavy hitters and his latest offering, “Uncle Kent,” is so textbook that it will someday become some film student’s homework. Shot with seemingly the worst camera he could find with no attempts to boost light or sound quality, “Uncle Kent” isn’t so much a narrative film as it is a fictionalized home movie. But because it depicts a pivotal debacle in a single forty-something’s sex life, it’s not the sort of thing you’d want to share with the neighbors.

The film starts out slow as the Kent in question (co-writer, Kent Osbourne) carries out his daily routine as a children’s show illustrator. He easily succumbs to the pitfalls of working from home including goofing off with friends, cat snuggling and pot smoking. These scenes are mundane because Kent’s life is mundane. Outside of the occasional party and an obsession with the website, Chatroulette, he has no social life to speak of. He claims to be fine with this, protesting to his happily married friend (Swanberg) that he enjoys the freedoms it affords him. For instance, instead of having a set dinnertime, he can eat whenever he gets hungry. That sounds so liberating.

Things start to get interesting when Kent invites a Chatroulette acquaintance, a journalist named Kate (Jennifer Prediger) in town on business, to stay with him for the weekend. Though she has a boyfriend, the sexual tension presents itself immediately. The frank conversation that is so easy to have in cyberspace ups the anty when they’re faced with it in person. She “accidentally” lets him see some naked pictures she took of herself on her camera. They demonstrate their individual masturbation techniques. They take pictures of their naughty bits for the benefit of other Chatrouletters. Though Kate is very game for this extreme flirtation, she always puts on the breaks whenever things seem like they will come to a head (no pun intended). As the weekend wears on, Kent becomes increasingly confused and frustrated.

Obviously, the only way to clear things up is to have a three-way with a young woman from Craigslist. In most movies (adult or otherwise), a three-way directs itself and the participants merely go with the flow. In real life, which “Uncle Kent” emulates perfectly, three-ways are full of fumbling and awkward moments. Things get even more awkward when Kent realizes this isn’t so much a three-way as it is two people having sex with one other person.

Though light on the action, “Uncle Kent” is a very rich film, full of quiet moments that speak volumes. Kent adds another piece of tape to the wad that is holding his car together. Lacking a proper guest room, Kent must inflate a mattress for Kate every night and deflate it every morning. In a tiny closet, Kent wedges himself between his bike and the litter box so that he can scoop up cat s**t. He frequently documents his humdrum activities on a Flip camera for a reason probably unknown even to him. The whole thing feels painfully voyeuristic. Then again, with Facebook, many of us partake in voyeurism on a daily basis. We invite it. Voyeurism has become the new way to socialize. For people like Kent, who have little going for them outside so-called social networking, it suddenly seems rather pathetic.

However you feel about them, a Mumblecore movie will always leave you with something to talk about. Atypical plot devises aside, the characters are so credible and natural that you can’t help but project yourself into the story. These aren’t larger-than-life Hollywood models having fantastical experiences. Even a really good mainstream movie will never leave you with as many social and ethical topics as a Mumblecore movie. If you can’t relate to the characters directly, you can at least feel morally superior watching them do and say boneheaded things. And who doesn’t love that?

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  1. Mark Bell says:

    I think it’s still available on cable on-demand for a couple more weeks, Tom, as part of the Sundance Selects program.

  2. Hope I didn’t come off as anal-retentive, Baxter. And the movie sounds interesting. Pity there will be little chance to see it, since there is only one “art” theater in Orlando and practically no film festivals. Maybe it’ll show up on IFC if I’m lucky.

  3. Baxter says:

    You’re right, Thomas. Those were foolish mistakes. I was stricken with the flu last week and it clearly affected my brain. I know there’s no excuse for such grievous errors. But I assure you I’m not illiterate, just careless. Thank you for taking the time to point out my mistakes!

  4. A couple of word choices grate pretty badly in this review. Like:

    The frank conversation that is so easy to have in cyberspace ups the anty… In poker, a bet placed before the cards are dealt is called an ante. “Anty” describes a blanket placed on an anthill during a picnic.

    Though Kate is very game for this extreme flirtation, she always puts on the breaks… The proper word is brakes. Like the brakes on your car, remember? When your brakes break, you can’t brake.

    Since nobody’s paid to edit any more…heck, nobody’s paid to write any more…every unpaid writer must also be an unpaid editor. That’s life in the illiterate 2010’s.

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