‘Uncle Kent’ a less-than-stellar effort

By Drew Hunt

As a mumblecore mainstay and micro-budget aficionado, Joe Swanberg is the kind of filmmaker seemingly tailor-made for iGeneration sensibilities. His filmography to date catalogs wayward 20-somethings via consumer-grade aesthetics.

Though outwardly unassuming, this method doesn’t always yield accessibility. Swanberg’s films suggest a fierce indifference toward theme and characterization, which in some instances feels refreshing but is quite often nothing more than lazy.

Such is the case with his latest film “Uncle Kent.” The titular character—played by Kent Osborne—is a 40-year-old unmarried animator living alone in Los Angeles. His closest companions appear to be his cat and his bong, and during the course of a week, we see his flailing attempt at connecting with a possibly bisexual woman named Kate—played by Jennifer Prediger—whom he met on Chatroulette and develops a pseudo-relationship with.

Arrested development aptly describes Kent’s current station in life: He claims to have no qualms with his perpetually adolescent existence, apparently preferring it to being tied down with a wife and family. But as the film progresses, we learn this isn’t exactly the case.

In the film, Swanberg proves to be dexterous in creating small moments of brilliance within scenes that seem to be about nothing whatsoever. The week Kent and Kate spend together unfolds much like it probably would in real life, with bright moments of humor nestled between stretches of boredom. But rather than using realism as an aesthetic mode, Swanberg seems to use it as a crutch to avoid responsibility on his characters’ behalf. Minimalism is one thing—complete indifference is another thing entirely. The characters in this film are merely there, and Swanberg simply asks us to accept it.

Throughout “Uncle Kent” are scenes that seem to act merely as placeholders for the moments Swanberg is more interested in portraying—such as an awkwardly hilarious sex scene that takes place after Kent and Kate respond to a Craigslist ad seeking a couple to share in a threesome. Up to that point, the pair had partaken in a series of awkwardly frank conversations about sex in which Kent’s floundering vulnerabilities were brought to the surface. When the two finally get together with their Craigslist hookup, his irresoluteness becomes cringe-worthy.

The Internet plays an interesting role in the film. In the past year, social networking has been addressed in films of varying seriousness and success. In “Uncle Kent,” the Web is the starting point of sexual expeditions and also the source of disillusion and longing. Kate’s departing words to Kent are simply, “Well … write on my wall.” And toward the end of the film, Kent watches a YouTube clip of himself playing with his gleeful, toddler-aged nephew as his family watches and laughs along. The title of the video reads, “We love Uncle Kent!” In each instance, Kent is met with either cold indifference or feelings of unfulfilled potential.

It is in these small, simple moments that Swanberg elicits the kind of true-to-life moments he seeks. They exist freely on screen, bringing his thematic musings to life in ways that exemplify his position as a most idiosyncratic filmmaker. The other attempts, however, fall flat. The idle complacency of the majority of “Uncle Kent” makes for an end result that renders these moments as somewhat unaffecting. It has languid tone, meant to evoke authenticity, but instead leads to the kind of meandering all directors should attempt to avoid.