Similar to the central couple at its core, Lindsay Mackay’s The Swearing Jar is full of secrets. MacKay’s follow up to her 2014 film Wet Bum initially wears the shell of a traditional romantic comedy. However, like a Russian Doll that has fallen and scattered on the floor, its various layers reveal themselves throughout.
Seemingly set around a 40th birthday party that Carey (Adelaide Clemens) is throwing for her husband Simon (Patrick J. Adams), the film floats in and out of various moments of the couple’s past to give context to why this particular event is significant. Picking up the day that Carey discovers that she is pregnant, the pair decide it is time for them to start acting like the role models they will soon be. Part of this means starting a swear jar to help them clean up their foul-mouthed ways.
As the couple gleefully keep each other in check, and fill up the jar accordingly, it is clear that cracks are appearing in their union. Carey starts to express doubts about motherhood and Simon’s increasingly moody demeanour signals that he has concerns of his own. Throw in Simon’s tenuous relationship with his mother Bev (Kathleen Turner), and Carey’s growing flirtatious friendship with Owen, a musician who works at a local bookstore, and you have the recipe for a rather drama filled soup.
It becomes apparent as the film progresses that Mackay is actually serving a different dish entirely. While a film about relationships, The Swearing Jar swims in the pool of intangibles that cause life to go hurtling in a completely different direction than expected. For Carey this means coming to terms with a possible new love and confronting the open wounds of the past.
Adapted from Kate Hewlett’s play of the same name, MacKay does a good job of establishing the sense of intimacy that Carey has with both men in her life. Several shots are shown through the narrow confines of windows and doors. This gives a sense of the playful innocence of love, take when tracking Simon is walking backwards outside by each window for example, while still conveying the uncomfortable distance that can arise in close relationships.
In observing the things often left unsaid, and the swift way secrets can alter dynamics, one realizes that the way the narrative is framed hinders the film more than it helps. An ambitious work, MacKay’s film spends a lot of time implying things that may not always be as they appear. The use of musical numbers to lead audiences into another chapter of the tale often feels like unnecessary red herrings. This not only creates several awkward moments, especially with respect to how Owen’s arc unfolds in relation to the shifting time frames, but also takes away from some of the emotional punch the film strives for.
Taking a giant leap forward from a stylistic standpoint, though not quite sticking the landing, MacKay continues to build on the promise she displayed in her debut. While the structure does not always work in its favour, The Swearing Jar has enough intriguing elements to maintain the viewer’s interest. The performances by Clemens and Turner, who is wonderfully in her limited scenes, bring a level of nuance to the film’s approach to love, grief, parenthood and all the things that make life complicated. Understanding that each journey has its own mountains to overcome, MacKay’s film finds strength in our ability to persevere even when forced to take an unexpected path.