The great talent of rising star Riley Keough is how she traffics in ambiguity; she was magnetic as a quietly cunning law student in The Girlfriend Experience and she’s a perfect fit, too, for Lovesong, a sleek and whisper-quiet drama about a long friendship that oscillates freely between closeness, distance and the purgatories in between. The film opens in an anonymous area of rural Pennsylvania, where Keough’s Sarah moves with ennui around a non-descript McMansion. Burdened with what is essentially single parenthood, she tends mainly to the whimsy of her three-year-old girl, Jessie (Jessie Ok Gray), using Skype to have glitching conversations with a husband who’s away on business trips of vague length and location. There’s a lot, in other words, for her character to be frustrated or downtrodden about. But it’s Keough’s decision not to overplay her hand in this time-tested set-up, opting for near-mute understatement where others might go loud, that spins a thin thread of intrigue.
Enter Mindy (Jena Malone), a school-era friend whose disregard for any kind of poise is a natural offset to Sarah’s gloom. The pair depart on a roadtrip with Jessie in tow, but to say it begins or ends anywhere in particular would be beside the point. They stop by a rodeo and Sarah chides Mindy for flirting with a greying cowboy, which suggests some of the differences that have pushed their friendship into neglect. That Mindy obliges suggests the deep yet unarticulated pull at its centre.
So Yong Kim, a Korean-American director with a number of independent features under her belt, starts broad then moves inwards, flirting with tropes to unearth detail amid the anonymity of her characters’ surroundings. What distinguishes Lovesong from a familiar brand of moribund indie drama is its coyness; the story moves amorphously forward almost entirely without context, pulling its performances front and centre. The actors’ strengths lie in how effortlessly they convince us that these women have a long-winding history, and this dovetails neatly with the quiet murmur of Kim’s visual style. This in turn allows the film to coast through an elusive vocabulary of loaded glances, touches and pregnant silences.
Life marches on; Mindy abruptly departs, and a somewhat stalling second act, taking place on the eve of Mindy’s own wedding three years later, suggests the two have largely fallen out of touch in the interim. While an opportunity to make a rote point about the inevitability of growing up and drifting apart thus arises, Kim is more interested in moulding the contours of this friendship to the ebb and flow of memory.
Later, an appearance by Amy Seimetz 1 does more to suggest Kim’s membership to a small and immensely talented cadre of independent American filmmakers, Seimetz and Shane Carruth among them. These are directors less interested purely in dialogue than how it interacts with form and performance, and Yong’s work, though less formally sophisticated, finds at its heart a similar tension. The fissure between what and how things are said is paramount. An arrestingly long take on a ferris wheel disrupts the relatively non-intrusive style, the camera volleying slowly between each woman’s mutual stares as the ambient sound fades almost to silence. It isn’t the first of several poignant and beautiful halts in Yong’s film, nor the last time that neither character finds the words to articulate what’s transpired.
But most of their time together is hindered by the vagaries of adulthood: weddings, awkward toasts, mothering and being mothered—life, so to speak. A raft of half-drawn satellite characters tend to bob in and out of the screenplay, letting the air out of this meek chamber as they come and go. Rosanna Arquette, in a small and arctic role as Mindy’s tetchy mother, most imbues the impression the film has shifted to auto-pilot as she doubles down on a trite list of Big Questions for her daughter.
Lovesong is ultimately winning because it’s more interested in evoking a mood than dispensing a plot, and it never loses sight of its intentions as a small, occasionally poetic film nobly centred on a small relationship as it’s sieved through time. Long-standing friendships can often feel like dutiful and inevitably empty salutes to the past, and it’s in contemplating the value of such gestures that Lovesong cuts incredibly close to the bone.
Disclosure: Jesse Thompson was an employee of the 2016 Sydney Film Festival. He had no input into festival programming and we have held this review until the end of the festival.
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