Human love — in all its fulsome, frustrating forms — is a slippery subject for an 82-minute documentary to wrap its arms around, but Alma Har’el’s opalescent, often bewitching “LoveTrue” makes a virtue of that elusiveness. Merging intimate fly-on-the-wall footage with fanciful dramatization in a manner that will be familiar to admirers of Har’el’s 2011 feature debut “Bombay Beach,” this more untethered outing drops in on three delicate domestic scenarios in which love is both fostered and challenged: an Alaskan stripper’s first serious relationship, a Hawaiian surfer’s conflicted paternity crisis, and a New York musician’s processing of her parents’ embittered separation. To what degree these narratives highlight universalities or distinct, disparate facets of love is in the eye of the beholder; either way, Har’el saturated sensory technique is a seduction in itself.
The presence of the recently art-project-inclined Shia LaBeouf as executive producer lends at least one marketing hook to a work that resists tidy description in terms of form, content and tone: For starters, for a film notionally about the emotion embedded in its title, “LoveTrue” is not as heart-lifting as that pitch might suggest. Surges of ecstasy course through Har’el’s film as they do through any romance, though it’s just as preoccupied with the internal ache and practical damage that love can leave in its wake: Two of her human subjects are forced by circumstance to readjust their idealized view of unconditional affection, while a third returns to a guarded perspective after a curtailed period of widescreen feeling. “You never meet anyone when you fall in love — not even yourself,” one observes in the course of the film; for all three, it seems, self-knowledge and self-love arrive with heartbreak.
An impressionistic introductory sequence — visually bookended at the film’s close — dreamily cross-stitches context-free fragments from the aforementioned subjects’ lives to a semi-secular distillation of 1 Corinthians 13 (“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am nothing”). It’s one of the few times Har’el openly invokes the spiritual in her survey of love, otherwise letting her characters (not an inappropriate term, given how the film contributes to their construction) dictate the register of the discussion.
Most plain-spoken of the lot is Blake, a smart, modest young woman in small-town Alaska who’s introduced in the early stages of her courtship with gentle, gangly computer geek Joel. Their relationship is so comfortably low-key that it comes as something of a surprise to learn that Blake works as an exotic dancer at a scuzzy local nightclub, though Har’el, sensitive to the last, doesn’t milk the revelation for shock value. It’s merely a not-entirely-happy fact of the young woman’s everyday existence, though tart interviews with one of Blake’s older, disenchanted co-workers (perhaps over-pointedly labeled “Older Blake” in certain scenes) underline the urgency of an escape route. That may not be Joel, however: For all its creative impositions, “LoveTrue” keeps the rules of real life and movie romance stringently separate.
Blake’s is the most immediately affecting of the film’s three narratives, while the emotional stakes of the other two take longer to unfurl. In Hawaii, breezy-living beach bum Willie is coaxed out of his manchild state by the responsibilities of fatherhood — a journey not shared with his estranged girlfriend — though the depth of his parental attachment only proves itself when the infant’s paternity is called into question. Parent-child relations take a darker turn still in the pic’s study of Victory, a gifted adolescent child of an American-American family of singers in New York City. Resentful of her mother for having seemingly walked out on them some years prior, she is compelled to mentally reframe her family portrait when she learns the particularities of her parents’ breakup; allegations of infidelity and abuse are raised around her adored father, but Har’el — who provocatively employs actors to refract possible personal histories, mingling their performances with first-hand home footage — unearths no clear-cut answers.
Auds may remain divided on the merits of Har’el’s fluid blend of observation and fabrication — which ranges from transparent fantasy, as in feverishly surreal flashblacks to Blake’s formative experiences of elementary-school bullying, to less discernible manipulations of apparent reality. Whether Har’el, who works as her own cinematographer, is a miraculously invisible documentarian or a deft conductor of true-life performance, she has captured instances of startling intimacy here — be it a couple’s idle horseplay, or a close-knit family’s mealtime bustle. In a film that positions itself as a meditation on love rather than a snapshot thereof, any amount of abstract technique in pursuit of feeling is arguably fair play.
Not all of Har’el’s intricate formal gambits are effective — in particular, the presentation of first-person testimony through subtitles rather than voiceover feels labored and distancing — but her restless carousel of imagery, alternately evoking close-quarters home video and soaring, storming dreamscapes, is mostly exhilarating. And when her images connect with the peaks of the pic’s roving, reverberating score by experimental electro artist Flying Lotus, magic is made in the moment; in its best stretches, “LoveTrue” has the tingle of true love.