It seems that at every MIFF I attend, there is usually one film that I have limited expectations for and it ends up knocking my socks off. This year, that film was Joe Swanberg’s “Drinking Buddies”; a film I initially had no intention of seeing until I noticed that Anna Kendrick was in the cast. In my defense, I was only aware of Joe Swanberg from his acting performances and while he isn’t terrible or anything like that, I just have never warmed to him as an actor. I’ve always felt that he comes across a little arrogant and sleazy in most of his performances, and stupidly I let my opinion of him as an actor colour what I assumed he would be like as a director. Truthfully, I had no idea that Swanberg had directed as many features as he has prior to this film, in fact since his feature directorial debut in 2011, “Drinking Buddies” is his eleventh film. The majority of his filmography consists of low-fi independent features usually starring his filmmaking friends (like Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Amy Seimetz and Ti West) and on average, running around seventy minutes in length. Without sounding pompous, it could almost be seen as though “Drinking Buddies” is his first real feature, as his cast is expanded from just his friends and the film itself is a much more polished and professional effort.
The story of “Drinking Buddies” is about two people, Kate and Luke, who are best friends and work together at a brewery. Their days are spent casually flirting with each other, having a few laughs, making fun of the other and then settling down with a beer or two. The chemistry between them is undeniable as is the fact that they make each other so happy. At the end of the working day, however, both Kate and Luke head home to their significant others; Luke to his girlfriend Jill, and Kate to her boyfriend Chris. One day at a function that Kate is holding at the brewery, the two couples come face to face for the first time, and decide it would be a good idea if the four of them go away together for a weekend on the beach, to get to know one another better. Everyone agrees and off they go. However the weekend together proves to be the catalyst that sees a change in Kate and Luke’s friendship, and also sees the complications within it rise.
Let me say right off of the bat, I loved this film! It is so good to see a film that instead of being about romance yet again, it is about friendship and the complications that can occur when you have a great friend who happens to be of the opposite sex. From a personal standpoint, this is something I can relate to very easily because the majority of my friends are female, but as much fun and games that I enjoy having with them, I am and will always be loyal to my beautiful wife. To see a film echoing this sentiment just warmed my heart, because you have no idea how many people have difficulty in trusting their partners when they have friendships with people of the opposite sex.
The best thing about “Drinking Buddies” are its two main characters and the actors who performed them. Both Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson are sensational as Kate and Luke, and both have this infectious energy that makes it impossible not to like them. Importantly too, Wilde and Johnson have amazing chemistry together that would make you assume that they were best friends themselves in real life. They bounce off of one another perfectly, doing the most stupid and silliest things to each another, and yet when either one has a problem they are able to settle down and be there for their friend. Their friendship just oozes a reality that I find is actually rare to find in cinema these days; it never feels forced, it is so natural.
This creation of reality has a lot to do with the fact that “Drinking Buddies” was a film that was completely ad-libbed. When I initially started writing this review I was going to mention how the dialogue had an ad-libbed feel to it, but after some research I found that this was indeed the case. The actors were just given an outline of the story and an idea where certain scenes took place within the story and then they were left on their own to come up with the dialogue. This is a very dangerous approach to creating a film, particularly if you have not cast the right people in the roles or have actors who are not comfortable with coming up with stuff on the spot, but it has worked amazingly well in “Drinking Buddies”. All the cast, but particularly Wilde and Johnson, have just nailed the reality of this story perfectly for Swanberg. They understand every nuance, every little look, every complication that makes this friendship what it is. While I went to see this film for Anna Kendrick, due to the magnetic performances from Wilde and Johnson, for once Kendrick faded into the background a bit. She didn’t command the screen like she normally does although I think her performance is still very good. It is her character that has to hold the most in emotionally speaking, as well as going through the internal pain from the guilt she feels.
What I really loved about this film was its depiction of the friendship and the way the partners reacted to it all. Both Jill and Chris trust their partners implicitly with Luke and Kate’s friendship never being an issue between either couple because when they go home to their partner, they are there with them and only them. In regards to the complications within the friendship, they come from little glances when one leaves with their partner and you can see the jealousy because they are no longer spending time with them, or when one of them breaks up with their partner and starts to sleep with who they please, the other friend takes offense at it because they feel they have more of a right to speak their mind about such things. Personally I found it all to be depicted so honestly and true to life, but my favourite thing of all about this film and the friendship presented within it is the fact that they remain plutonic for the whole film. I would have been shattered if “Drinking Buddies” suddenly went Hollywood and Luke and Kate realized they were perfect for each other. Thank god that does not happen here! The film is about friendship and to introduce a romantic angle would have destroyed it. I love the fact that Luke remains loyal to Jill without ever sacrificing his friendship with Kate. Also I think that the film has a perfect ending, although I can see how some could find it dull and anti-climatic, but for me it just fit with the rest of the film.
Overall, “Drinking Buddies” was an absolute delight and a total surprise for me. Joe Swanberg and his cast have created some fantastically real characters that are a joy to be around for the ninety minutes of the film. While the film does not have big dramatic arcs nor an epic feel to it, this story of friendship and its complications hit me right between the eyes and I loved every minute of it. Sure, it is a small and modest film but it is full of such honesty that I found it very easy to relate to. “Drinking Buddies” surprisingly has turned out to be one of my favourite films at MIFF this year.