Sundance Film Review: ‘Lovesong’

Riley Keough and Jena Malone play longtime friends drawn together by an ambiguous but persistent desire in So Yong Kim's graceful fourth feature.

Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Conceived in the same delicate minor key as her earlier films (“In Between Days,” “Treeless Mountain” and “For Ellen”), So Yong Kim’s fourth feature dances nervously but gracefully around a love that not only dares not speak its name, but can barely even figure itself out. Anchored by Riley Keough’s lovely, wistful performance as a mom in her 20s who gets back in touch with an old childhood bestie (a sharp Jena Malone), “Lovesong” makes a virtue of restraint as it traces a complex emotional history in two parts, and innumerable (and sometimes quite literal) shades of gray. The result may not significantly broaden the audience for Kim’s subdued, perceptive work but nevertheless stands as her most accessible feature to date, and deserves a listen from discerning arthouse distributors.

Recently seen in a very different role as Capable, the aptly named, ginger-haired female escapee in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Keough scales down beautifully here as Sarah, a twentysomething woman whom we first glimpse being awakened by her 3-year-old daughter, Jessie (Jessie Ok Gray, Kim’s daughter with her co-writer, producer and husband, Bradley Rust Gray). As the two go about their lazy day together at home (the location used here is rural Pennsylvania), it’s clear that Sarah may as well be a single mom, for all the attention she’s shown by her physically and emotionally distant husband, Dean (director Cary Joji Fukunaga, seen briefly via video chat). With Dean away on one of his many business trips, Sarah arranges a road trip with her longtime friend Mindy (a bleached-blonde Malone), whose free-spirited, easily distractable nature stands in decided contrast with our more tamped-down heroine.

Although she bonds immediately with Jessie and encourages Sarah to be less stressed-out as a mom, Mindy could actually stand to be a little more uptight, judging by the way she carries on a longer-than-necessary flirtation with a stranger at a rodeo, ignoring her friends in the process. But Sarah clearly warms to Mindy’s attention whenever it’s offered, and after a long night of drinks, jokes and sexual confessions, the relationship advances to a deeper level of intimacy, though the film is fairly circumspect about exactly what has transpired, physically if not emotionally. Still, when Mindy impulsively purchases a bus ticket and tenders an abrupt farewell, more to Jessie’s disappointment than to her surprise, it’s clear enough that things have gotten a bit too hot to handle.

The movie’s second half picks up three years later, with Sarah and the now 6-year-old Jessie (Sky Ok Gray, Kim and Gray’s other daughter) driving toward Nashville, where the now auburn-haired Mindy is getting married in a few days to a nice guy named Leif (Ryan Eggold). It soon becomes clear that the two friends haven’t really seen or spoken to each other in the past three years, but Sarah remains quietly loyal and attentive, watching Mindy from afar at a pre-wedding party, helping out with arrangements for the reception, and even driving to the airport to pick up the bride’s estranged mother (Rosanna Arquette, terrifically tetchy). At one point, when Mom privately presses Mindy about why she’s bothering to get married at all, the movie cuts away with telling abruptness, allowing the question to linger.

For her part, Sarah simply wants to know where she stands with Mindy, who, for all her outward excitement, is one hot matrimonial mess: freaking out randomly and ignoring her friend for long stretches, then impulsively pulling her close or dropping by for an unannounced nightcap. Eventually the two come to a sort of sad, private reckoning, in a lyrically shot and scored outdoor sequence that leaves us guessing as to how much of what we’re seeing is really happening. As is often the case with Kim’s films, it’s what she chooses to leave unspoken and undramatized that matters most, and in “Lovesong” she plays out this not-quite-romance with a hesitation and ambiguity that may well frustrate some audiences, particularly those unsure how to process a movie that’s in no hurry to dispel its emotional confusion.

What’s left in the end, and it’s significant, is a sudden rush of tenderness that testifies to the depth of feeling that has transpired between Sarah and Mindy, even if they may lack the words or the inclination to define it. While some may dismiss “Lovesong” as retrograde for not adhering to the happy-ending expectations of a 21st-century queer romance (or a mid-1950s queer romance, on the evidence of “Carol”), the film is not, in the end, a narrative of the closet: Judging by the very public kiss that Sarah and Mindy exchange at a bar counter one night, and the general air of anything-goes sexual openness at their various pre-wedding parties, a fear of social ostracism isn’t at issue here. There’s a remarkable truthfulness to the film’s acknowledgment that people often make enormous decisions rooted not in fear so much as uncertainty, even laziness, as well as a comfort with their lives as they’ve lived them until the present juncture.

Malone, with her knack for playing strong-willed, hard-edged young women, is perfectly cast as the brash, impulsive, needy and inconsiderate friend who has come to rely deeply on Sarah. And Keough makes entirely clear why Sarah invites her friend’s trust: Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Kristen Stewart at her most expressively withdrawn, the actress (soon to be seen on Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience”) projects a soulful integrity that keeps the character from seeming too passive. She may not seem to be doing much at any given moment, but her every silent, darting glance makes clear that she’s both a natural caretaker — of her friend, of her daughter — and also someone with an eye on a potentially new horizon.

Lensers Kat Westergaard and Guy Godfree keep their gently handheld cameras close to the primary actors but occasionally pull back to take in the cool, calming beauty of their natural surroundings. The soundscape balances occasional soft-rock tunes and a mistily subdued score by the multitalented composer Johann Johansson (“Sicario,” “The Theory of Everything”).

Sundance Film Review: ‘Lovesong’

Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, Los Angeles, Jan. 14, 2016. (In Sundance Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 85 MIN.

  • Production: Produced by Alex Lipschultz, Bradley Rust Gray, Johnny Mac, David Hansen. Executive producers, Mynette Louie, Laura Rister, Julie Parker Benello, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger. Co-producers, Morgan Coy, Elise Tyler. Co-executive producers, Abigail Disney, Regina K. Scully, Jenny Patinkin, Douglas Patinkin.
  • Crew: Directed by So Yong Kim. Screenplay, Kim, Bradley Rust Gray. Camera (color, widescreen), Kat Westergaard, Guy Godfree; music, Johann Johannsson; music supervisor, Chris Swanson; production designer, Bart Mangrum; art director, Karim Kheir; set decorator, Ibrahim Dawood; costume designers, Elizabeth Warn, Samantha Roe; sound, Fadi Shehadeh; line producer, Max A. Butler; associate producer, Derek Nguyen; casting, Cindy Tolan, Adam Caldwell.
  • With: Riley Keough, Jena Malone, Brooklyn Decker, Ryan Eggold, Rosanna Arquette, Amy Seimetz, Cary Joji Fukunaga.