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Digging for Fire

D: Joe Swanberg / 84m

Cast: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brie Larson, Orlando Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Tom Bower, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Steve Berg, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Jane Adams

Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) are a young-ish couple with a three year old son who agree to housesit for one of Lee’s clients while they’re away. On their first day there, while doing some gardening, Tim unearths what looks like a human bone, and a handgun. Lee is all for putting them back and forgetting about them, reasoning that the two items don’t have to be linked. Tim is brimming over with curiosity and wants to do more digging, but nevertheless he calls the police; when they prove uninterested Tim lets himself be persuaded not to pursue it further.

The weekend begins the next day. Lee has made arrangements to take their son to visit her mother (Light) and stepfather (Elliott), while Tim is tasked with completing their tax returns. But both have other plans for their respective weekends: Tim has invited several of his friends for a barbecue and beers, while Lee is looking forward to a girls’ night out with her friend Squiggy (Lynskey). Neither knows of the other’s plans, and neither of them has any intention of letting the other know what they’ve been up to.

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That nothing goes quite as either of them expect shouldn’t come as any surprise. Tim’s excitement about his discovery leads to his roping his friends into helping him dig for further remains, while Lee’s friend, too busy warring with her husband Bob (Livingston) to leave him alone with their children’s nanny for the evening, backs out of their arrangement. More of Tim’s friends turn up, with one of them, Billy Tango (Messina), bringing with him two women, Max and Alicia (Larson, Kendrick). While Tim finds himself digging alone, he’s joined by Max who shows an interest in what he’s doing, and digs with him. Meanwhile, Lee resigns herself to a quiet night at her mother’s.

The next day sees Tim making a half-hearted attempt to do the taxes before resuming his digging. Lee goes shopping and buys herself a leather jacket before returning to her mother’s and deciding that this evening she’s going to go out, even if it is by herself. Tim finds himself rejoined by Max and together they continue looking for more evidence of foul play. When he calls it a day he offers to take Max out for a bite to eat as a thank you for helping him. With her own clothes dirty from all the digging, Tim tells her to choose from Lee’s clothes. And while Tim’s evening heads in one direction, Lee’s heads in another as she meets Ben (Bloom) in a restaurant bar.

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Right about now, anyone watching Digging for Fire will be sizing up each situation and deciding which one of Tim and Lee will make the classic mistake of sleeping with someone else. But co-writers Swanberg and Johnson don’t make it so easy, and deftly pull the rug out from under the viewer’s feet. This may seem like a movie whose focus is on what happens when both halves of a married couple experience some much longed-for freedom, but it’s a much cleverer movie than that, and despite all the drinking and drug-taking and sexual tensions that occur, this is a staunchly conservative movie that reinforces marriage, fidelity and parenthood as truly desirous states to be in.

With temptation placed firmly in the way of both Tim and Lee, it’s interesting to see how the script has them react. Tim wants to party like he used to before he got married but he’s only really comfortable when he’s focused on his digging; when he calls it a night he barely receives any acknowledgment from any of his friends, so keen are they to carry on partying. And when he’s joined by Max the next day he’s so pleased that someone wants to help him it doesn’t matter to him if that someone is male or female. For Tim, discovering further evidence of foul play – if indeed there is any – has added an extra layer of blinkers to the way he views other women anyway, and despite Max’s obvious good looks and equally obvious liking for him, he can only view her as a friend.

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Lee, however, becomes seduced by Ben’s carefree nature, a world away from her life as a wife and mother, tied down by responsibilities (even though she tells their son they’re down to his father to deal with – or mommy will be angry), and a belief that her life as an individual is over with. Call it post-natal depression, or a post-marital fugue, but Lee sees herself as having lost touch with herself, while Tim tells anyone who’ll listen how much his life has changed for the good through being a parent. Neither is wrong, and their feelings are true for each of them, but it’s whether or not they really need to recapture their lives before marriage and parenthood “tied them down” that counts.

Swanberg has been making smart, subtly sophisticated comedy dramas like this one for some time now – Drinking Buddies (2013), also with Johnson, is a gem that should be tracked down immediately if you haven’t seen it already – and while you could level an accusation of naïvete at the way in which Tim and Lee behave around their “prospective partners”, it’s the way in which they recognise the strength and durability of their marriage, and how it enhances their individual lives as well as their commitment to each other that makes it all work so well. And Swanberg is aided by two generous central performances from Johnson and DeWitt, wonderful supporting turns from Birbiglia, Larson and Lynskey, and rounds it all off with a carefully chosen soundtrack that perfectly complements the events happening on screen.

Rating: 8/10 – full of indie charm and a raft of likeable characters we can all relate to, Digging for Fire is another winner from Swanberg; smart, funny, emotional and knowing, it’s a movie that many married couples will find themselves relating to, and never once gives in to the temptation of being self-conscious or patronising.

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