A melancholic mood permeates “Lorelei,” a love story, character study and social melodrama somberly if unevenly rolled into one, with the subtlest touch of mysticism. Set amid the picturesquely dewy backdrops, brisk natural lights and impossibly tall trees of Oregon, writer-director Sabrina Doyle’s fable-like tale of working-class Americans on the fringe navigates its elusive waters with compassion and care, even when it veers into some predictable shallows from time to time.
More often than not, though, debut feature filmmaker Doyle’s commitment to quiet moments of humanism sells this unassuming story. Commendably, the director sidesteps patronizing miserabilism, yielding an empathetic yarn of second chances that steadfast leads Pablo Schreiber and Jena Malone elevate through their delicately reflective performances. In a thematic landscape that loosely resembles Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s “The Mustang” and the lesser known but worthy “The Free World” by Jason Lew, the duo portray Wayland and Lola, two former high school sweethearts who reunite a decade and a half later, after a series of unfortunate circumstances separated them in their teens. We learn that Wayland was sent off to jail for armed robbery for 15 years, leaving behind a heartbroken Lola with far-fetched dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer. But the young woman had to shelve those aspirations once an unplanned pregnancy altered the course of her life.
When the tall and burly Wayland gets released from prison at the beginning of the movie, his masculine presence feels both discernible and frankly, a touch intimidating. Doyle doubles down on this image of physicality in the next scene, following Wayland out of the jail as a group of his biker comrades — all equally brawny men — escorts him to his halfway house on roaring engines. These teased gradients of masculinity will become a recurring motif of “Lorelei,” a theme that Doyle thoughtfully engages with, critiques and even remolds throughout the film as the young man finds himself in the midst of a rekindling romance. Indeed, it’s as if no time has passed between them when Lola runs into Wayland while attending a single-parent support group at the same house where he lives. Now a mother of three children from three men — the kids, Denim, Periwinkle and Dodger, are all named after shades of blue — the spirited Lola and the subdued Wayland fall back into a warm domestic rhythm in no time, almost trying too hard to compensate for the lost years.
It’s no wonder that Wayland’s rigid facade softens before our eyes. How could it not, when acts of benevolence and kindness surround him wherever he goes? In that regard, Doyle builds a careful ecosystem of players, all of them hardened, no-nonsense, helpful individuals who genuinely want what’s best for this remorseful man who’s fallen behind on society. It’s with that sincerity that his halfway house proprietor, pastor Gail (a memorably plain-speaking Trish Egan), reminds him of her belief in second chances, and his seen-it-all parole officer permits him to move in with Lola and her kids even though Wayland’s request goes against the general order of how things are handled in the legal ranks.
“Lorelei” is at its strongest when it keeps an observant gaze on the romance of Wayland and Lola, alongside the pair’s evolving routine as they work at depressingly dead-end jobs and affectionately care for three dissimilar children. With sound writerly astuteness, Doyle touchingly addresses the challenges Denim and Dodger face in their community because of their respective nonbinary gender and biracial identities, and she adorns all her characters with generous grace notes in the process. Even though Wayland and Lola aren’t furnished with the sophisticated tools or knowledge to support these kids’ needs, Doyle makes an optimistic case for the potential in their bottomless humanity and an idealistic world in which that type of humanity could be enough to erase prejudice. Malone is especially remarkable in these segments. Perhaps because we’ve seen her on the screen as a child performer, or perhaps because she is an age-defying chameleon, the actor toggles between looking like a weathered adult in one scene and an innocent teenager in the next, concretizing her character’s short-lived carefree youth in her 30-something eyes.
When the romance takes a back seat, “Lorelei” struggles to find its footing, meandering once Lola takes off for Los Angeles for a new job — at a dive bar where she’s expected to swim in an aquarium in a mermaid costume. In these scenes and others, cinematographer Stephen Paar indulges in clichéd dreamy sequences and even underwater symbolism, a tendency “Lorelei” barely gets away with thanks to Lola’s pronounced background as a swimmer. But this is otherwise a thoughtful, meditative movie, one that gently injects a world of limited options with substance.