Tender, sensitive “Sunset Story” sidesteps a maudlin tone for a wide-ranging account of two fragile but opinionated retirees living in a home in L.A. for aging radical lefties. That such a place even exists may seem extraordinary, but director Laura Gabbert wisely doesn’t trumpet Sunset Hall itself. Instead, her vid-shot docu reveals what a special place this is through the vector of her heroines, Irja Lloyd and Lucille Alpert. Win for audience award for best non-fiction film at L.A. fest should propel pic to wider fest playdates, augmenting future PBS airings care of ITVS.
Irja and Lucille arrive at Sunset Hall within weeks of each other, providing one another with the kind of vital company they both crave. Though Irja is 14 years younger than 95-year-old Lucille, it’s the elder pal who pushes Irja, a heart attack survivor, around in her wheelchair.
Besides the expected home-based activities from physical therapy to sing-alongs with folk singers who themselves are starting to show their age, Irja and Lucille are at the forefront of field trips to protest against the policies of such major senior targets as HMOs and L.A.’s public transit authority. (Irja even gets her face in an L.A. Times photograph at one of the protests.)
Each woman comfortably comments on their differences: Lucille considers Irja “more upbeat” by nature, an optimist to Lucille’s self-described “realist.” Lucille presses their differences further in one scene, when she insists that the non-Jewish Irja can’t possibly comprehend what it’s like to be the object of anti-Semitism that Lucille experienced in her youth.
The occasional death of a resident darkens the mood, and Irja’s sudden heart problems threaten to rob Lucille of her new, dear friend. Gabbert casually inserts mini bios of each radical vet into the present-day events, showing how their personalities and politics were formed as much by their choices as by their families and past husbands.
Since Gabbert deliberately structures “Sunset Story” like a narrative film, she emphasizes both sad and surprising life-changing events in the final 30 minutes that are best not revealed, but which easily account for pic’s strong emotional appeal. The only grating flaw among the otherwise well-crafted visual and audio elements is a dreadfully mawkish Peter Golub score that violates the film’s spirit.