INDIEWATCH: ‘Drinking Buddies’ a sober story about romantic relationships — and beer

It’s hard for me to picture Olivia Wilde as anyone other than “Thirteen” from the TV show “House.” Even watching her in “TRON: Legacy,” I thought “Thirteen can really rock a short haircut,” but she breaks the mold in “Drinking Buddies.”

Wilde plays Kate, who’s extremely chummy with her brewery co-worker Luke, (Jake Johnson). They flirt like middle-schoolers, making lunch dates and playing with each other’s food.

Writer/director Joe Swanberg sets the stage, so you’re sure they’re a couple until Luke’s girlfriend, Jill (Anna Kendrick), joins them at a bar. Later, Kate meets her beau, Chris, played by Ron Livingston (and it’s a wonder to see him in such an uptight role).

Luke (Jake Johnson) and Jill (Anna Kendrick) in “Drinking Buddies.”

The couples meet during an anniversary party for the brewery. Luke and Kate joke and tease while Chris and Jill discuss literature and do-gooding. Emotional ambivalence runs rampant when the four double-date to a cottage for the weekend. Luke and Kate play drinking games while Chris and Jill hike the trails. It’s kind of grossly evident that they should do a permanent couple swap, but seeing the story unfold and the players deliver is what makes this worth watching.

Wilde knocks it out of the park. She executes nuanced emotion with skill and sass, and I look forward to seeing her in more leading roles. It was nice to see Johnson (“New Girl”) wax dramatic. He definitely has the acting chops for mixing comedy with drama. Even under a grizzly man beard, he brings charm and a comfortable swagger to this character, who, off the cuff, you may wonder why two chicks are into him. He and Wilde’s chemistry was so spot-on, I thought they could work as a couple in real life.

Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Chris (Ron Livingston) in “Drinking Buddies.”

“Drinking Buddies” is set in Chicago, and many scenes were filmed in a brewery or a hole-in-the-wall bar, all of which reinforce the film’s humble, down-to-earth tone. Director Swanberg had the actors drink real beer in this movie that’s mostly improvised. Nice choice, as the dialogue felt natural and spontaneous. Swanberg masterfully omits and includes storytelling elements to the film’s advantage. I was consistently surprised and engaged. (No spoilers.)

Though the plot may sound familiar to anyone who’s had unconsummated feelings for a friend, “Drinking Buddies” is delightfully unpredictable in its storytelling. I’d definitely buy it if it weren’t available on streaming. It’s so worth a watch.

Grade: A-

Available: Amazon Prime, Netflix Instant.

IndieWatch is a weekly review of independent film and documentaries.

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