The ups and downs of a decades-long friendship are charted with warmth and sensitivity in “Shepard and Dark,” documentarian Treva Wurmfeld’s intimate portrait of playwright-actor Sam Shepard and his far less accomplished buddy Johnny Dark. Spanning 18 months, the pic follows the pair as they sift through the reams of soul-baring correspondence that have passed between them and ponder how to package the letters in book form. Somewhat taking the place of that unrealized project, Wurmfeld’s film subtly reveals the tensions that emerge between two kindred spirits with vastly different views of work. A limited but appreciative audience awaits.
Shepard devotees will naturally find the film essential, in part for its unstinting focus on the artist’s early ’80s decision to leave the surrogate family he had established with Dark in order to take up with Jessica Lange. At the same time, Wurmfeld is careful to locate the universal truths in the men’s friendship and to engage even those who’ve never heard of Shepard. Among the pic’s gently observed subjects is that of whether a couple’s collective talent for disclosure and reflection inevitably threatens to turn toxic over the long haul.