Micro-Budget Microbrew: "Drinking Buddies" a naturally funny, strongly acted little gem with beer galore

Drinking Buddies (2013)
90 min., rated R.

Joe Swanberg has made a name for himself in the circuit of independent cinema and, more specifically, the mumblecore movement for a while now. For his fourteenth feature, he has assembled a cast of mainstream performers and, as is his wont, provided them with a loose story outline and structure to improvise. Writer-director-producer Swanberg accomplishes a lot with a little, the result being "Drinking Buddies," a naturally funny and brightly acted indie pervaded with such a relaxed, naturalistic slice-of-life vibe that one could mistake it for eavesdropping with hidden cameras. Like real life, it feels alternately comfortable and uncomfortable.

Working at a Chicago craft microbrewery, gregarious event/tasting organizer Kate (Olivia Wilde) is just one of the guys, as she can throw back many a brewski. Bearded co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson) could be her boyfriend, or soul mate, but he has a girlfriend, special education teacher Jill (Anna Kendrick), and Kate has a boyfriend, record producer Chris (Ron Livingston). After a brewery party, the two couples decide to retreat to Chris' cabin in Michigan for the weekend. The next day, Chris and Jill go for a hike and have a glass of wine each, while Kate and Luke stay back to play blackjack and drink beer. Tension percolates, no, brews, but will anyone actually go through with switching partners? Every time you think you know exactly where it's going, "Drinking Buddies" subverts expectations a bit in that it has no driving narrative and is not about alcoholism or infidelities. Even after Jill comes clean to Luke about something that happened over the weekend and could complicate their relationship, convention is avoided. Instead of swallowing up its characters in story contrivances, this smart, unaffected film shrewdly observes human interaction and platonic, albeit boundary-pushing, relationships. It also doesn't hurt one bit that the film, while shaggy, is nicely shot by Ben Richardson ("Beasts of the Southern Wild") and aesthetically skilled with zero preciousness or film-student amateurishness.

Proving to be more than just another pretty face after co-starring in more commercial fare ("Tron: Legacy" and "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"), Wilde is the most noteworthy here. Stretching herself, she shows charisma, nuance, and subtlety, managing Kate as a complete mess but not off-putting and still coming off sexy. A testament to Swanberg's outwardly unrehearsed way of directing and giving his actors breathing room, her playful, flirty, and downright real rapport with the endearingly scruffy Johnson is pitch-perfect and reason enough to watch. These buddies are, perhaps, just meant to be together. The lovely Kendrick doesn't miss the mark, either, painting Jill as a sensitive young woman faced with guilt and potential unfaithfulness, not a nagging shrew. Livingston also acquits himself quite well as Chris, who seems like a mild match for Kate, but while given the least screen time of the four, he commendably never turns Chris into a broad-brushed jerk. Wilde's real-life beau Jason Sudeikis and horror filmmaker Ti West also have bit roles as the brewery's owner and another co-worker.

The relationships are believable and, wholesale, the film hits surprising, emotionally true notes by its terrific cast. What's so special about the final moments is that they leave it up to the viewer, relying on unspoken interactions rather than on-the-nose apologies and declarations of love. As a mere passing snapshot of these people's lives—light but hoppy, if you will—"Drinking Buddies" feels a smidgen too short to add up to a substantial whole. Still, it's about as casual and disarming as hanging out with good friends and sipping on a few brews. Okay, make that a lot of brews.