Alex Heeney reviews Lindsay Mackay’s second feature film, The Swearing Jar, an existential crisis film with two romances.
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There’s a scene in Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece (2018), in which Nora Sadava’s Cassandra explains to her divorced and depressed mother that the end of a marriage doesn’t have to mean the end of her romantic life. “People have lots of relationships,” she says. It’s something I thought about a lot during Lindsay Mackay’s funny, heartbreaking, beautiful new film, The Swearing Jar. It’s a film about love, grief, and second chances.The Swearing Jar is technically a film with two romance stories told in two interwoven timelines. But it’s much more about how the protagonist, Carey (a wonderful Adelaide Clemens), navigates her own pain and insecurities. That feels radically different from how these stories are usually told. But it’s in line with the recent trend towards stories about women coming of age in their thirties and forties.
The Swearing Jar is a stealth musical
Like Mouthpiece (and 2020’s Sugar Daddy), The Swearing Jar is a stealth musical. Carey is a disappointed singer-songwriter and current music teacher. Almost all of the music in the film is written and sung by the character, like Sugar Daddy. It offers insight into her inner emotional turmoil which she otherwise struggles to articulate. The film begins and ends with a concert Carey is performing for her husband, Simon’s (Patrick J. Adams), fortieth birthday. Kate Hewlett’s excellent script, based on her play, keeps the exact details of what happened to him vague, if easily guessable. For much of the film though, something has upended Carey’s life. We surmise from the start that the concert is a way for her to process her feelings through song. She’s accompanied on guitar by a handsome man, Owen (Douglas Smith), who at the very least seems to have a tendre for her.
Comparisons between the films The Swearing Jar and Take This Waltz
With its Toronto-adjacent setting — like so many Canadian films this year, it was shot in Hamilton — and with bright blues, greens, yellows, and summery colours, aesthetically, The Swearing Jar recalls Sarah Polley’s excellent Take This Waltz. Polley’s protagonist moved from one immature romantic relationship to another slightly less immature one. By contrast, MacKay’s film and Hewlitt’s script are refreshingly about grown ups acting like grown ups.
Carey and Simon get off on conflict, but it’s the bickering kind, arguing about things they don’t care about, mostly to make each other laugh. Their relationship starts out a bit tense, but it’s not clear that that’s because they’re on the verge of a breakup. She just found out she’s pregnant, after years of trying. He just found out he’s dying, but decides to keep it to himself in the wake of the exciting news. There are tensions, but they aren’t passive aggressive, and they do, otherwise, genuinely talk to each other.
A script that shows the small intimacies of a long-term relationship
Hewlitt’s script is peppered with the inside jokes and private language of a long-term relationship. The film gets its title from the ‘Swearing Jar’ that Carey decides to create in the wake of the news about expecting a baby. They both love to swear, and this seems like a good way to curb it. It starts out as a kind of a fun joke. But as the film progresses, it’s something they keep referring back to. During fights, someone often raises the jar in the other person’s face, demanding payment for cursing. In a light moment, Carey swears in her song lyrics. Simon tries to charge her, only for her to explain it doesn’t count when you’re singing. So he sing-swears, too. It’s the last joint project they get to have together before he dies.
A new romance in Lindsay MacKay’s film The Swearing Jar
Meanwhile, in the closer-to-present-day timeline, Carey is an emotional wreck. She finds solace in musician-bookshop worker, Owen. He makes jokes, listens, and doesn’t push her to talk about things she doesn’t want to. They both have dead parents, so they both have experience with grief. Refreshingly, he’s not some adolescent rebound. He’s emotionally intelligent, charming, and extremely patient.
When he finds out that Carey has a three-year-old daughter, he rolls with it. But she still feels like she’s married. She never got closure on her past relationship. So she puts so many roadblocks in the way, paired with mixed signals. At one point, Owen recaps that she came to see him to tell him she couldn’t reply to his email. She’s fighting with herself.
Letting Simon off the hook
There’s some tricky territory about consent and Carey’s pregnancy, and the film is quick to wear off those sharp edges. Simon died when she was maybe ten months pregnant. He knew his sudden death was coming soon, and he didn’t tell her. He wanted the baby too much. That could be seen as sentimental: wanting to make the most of their remaining time rather than fighting. But it robs Carey of the choice to either terminate the pregnancy or discuss the baby’s future with Simon. When Carey learns about this after his death, she’s furious — mostly about his lies. Her anger never really seems about her dubious consent in carrying her pregnancy to term without knowing she’d be a single parent. The other characters in the film go easy on Simon though.
Simon’s mother (played by Kathleen Turner) felt her son meant well, and to be fair to both of them, he wasn’t exactly thinking straight with his constant headaches from a brain aneurysm that was about to pop. Owen dismisses it with, “people lie,” after making a whole to do about how lying and secrets are relationship deal breakers for him. I think Simon maybe gets off too easily. But on the other hand, the film isn’t about him and his relationship with Carey. It’s about how she navigates the different stages of her life. She has to forgive Simon so she can have Owen and happiness in the future.
Are the men too good to be true?
The men in Carey’s life also seem almost too good to be true. But it’s nice to see the modern fantasy sometimes, even if it’s some men, not most men (read the stats on inequalities in marriage if you want to get angry). Owen is the kind of understanding second chance romance that Gaby in Spinster gets a glimpse of but rejects for all the other parts of her life that matter more at the time. We don’t see it, but Simon’s sardonic humour suggests he might have had a meaner side, not just because he (fairly) has his mother programmed into his phone as “Evil Mother Person.”
Carey doesn’t spend any of the film The Swearing Jar really dealing with the men’s needs; they cater to hers because she’s in crisis. Though I may find the men in Alice Winocour’s Proxima more broadly realistic — decent men who are still kind of unintentionally terrible because of male privilege — it’s nice to see what the alternative could look like, especially in a romance story where they feel like three-dimensional characters with their own wants and needs.
Adapting to COVID filming restrictions
Because of COVID filming restrictions, the films that have premiered this year have tended to be smaller scale and stripped down. By necessity, they’ve had to become the two-people-in-a-room genre that I absolutely love. Unfortunately, that’s also incredibly hard to make, requiring excellent blocking and sound design. Not everyone can be Andrew Haigh or Joanna Hogg on their best day, nor is that necessarily where their talents lie. But MacKay does excellent blocking here. I suspected that the best films to come out of the pandemic filmmaking restrictions would be films like The Swearing Jar: based on a play, made by theatre people, or made by people already capable of working on a small scale. Lindsay MacKay’s previous film, Wet Bum, was a thoughtful coming-of-ager about a girl and her discordant relationship with her body. It was, likewise, a character study.
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The Swearing Jar doesn’t acknowledge it, but the filming seems likely affected by it in an onubtrusive way.
Although The Swearing Jar is a three-to-four-hander, it feels bigger in scope. You don’t notice its theatrical origins, nor does it feel hemmed in by filming restrictions. Instead, MacKay finds some clever, and I’m guessing COVID-related, directorial solutions. For example, there’s a lovely, romantic scene between Owen and Carey that happens through the window of the bookstore where they’re outside. No extra needed. Good ventilation outdoors. But we still get the cozy feeling of the bookstore, and the feeling that we’re watching something secret and private. It makes it more intimate, but it also adds to the feeling they both have that they’re in an affair that needs to become a relationship.
The film is full of moments like this, with outdoor settings that serve plot purposes, or contained moments between two characters. The missing extras aren’t conspicuous because the film commits to the relationships, and above all, to Carey’s psychology. I laughed, I wept, and I came out hopeful that the romantic stories we’re telling on screen are really changing for the better.
Seventh Row originally published an excerpt of this review of The Swearing Jar after its world premiere. The excerpt was published at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2022. The Swearing Jar is already on VOD in the US.
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