The same day faded-romance drama “A Love Song” screened for the Sundance Film Festival, I caught an interview with Marilyn Bergman on NPR in which the late lyricist described the time director Richard Brooks came to her and partner Alan with a request: “I want you to write me a song that is to appear twice in [“The Happy Ending”]. Early in the film, I want it to function perhaps as a proposal of marriage between these two young lovers,” he said to them. “l don’t want you to change a note or a word, but I want the song to mean something very different when you hear it a second time,” Brooks told the couple, who answered the assignment with the ballad “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”
There’s a love song in “A Love Song” that functions in much the same way. It goes unheard until the very last scene, but in a way, it echoes all that has come before — the longing, the regret, the feelings two lovers couldn’t put into words. The tune is a contemporary one, but it sounds like a classic, as if it’s been waiting in the radio for this very moment, paying off an intimate conversation from earlier in the film, when a widow named Faye (Dale Dickey) sat with an old friend from childhood, Lito (Wes Studi), and said, “Give that dial a swirl. Always plays the perfect song, even if in the moment, you ain’t sure why.”
Over the course of the film — a spare, unfussy indie of the Kelly Reichardt ilk, conceived by Colorado native Max Walker-Silverman — audiences spend a fair amount of time with Faye, most of it alone. She’s driven her trailer to an out-of-the-way campground and parked it beside a fishing hole, where it’s easy to catch Rocky Mountain lobsters and cook them up fresh.
By day, Faye listens to the birdsong around her. At night, she looks to the stars in the clear sky above. But mostly, Faye waits. We can sense the nervous excitement anytime someone approaches. It’s there in the way she adjusts her shirt and touches her hair before opening the door. She’s not young, no longer beautiful, and yet, it’s near-impossible not to love her.
A character actor with more than 125 credits to her name, Dale Dickey is perhaps best recognized for playing worse-for-wear junkies and hillbillies in film and TV (her credits include “Winter’s Bone,” “True Blood” and “My Name Is Earl”). You might not know her name, but she has a face you don’t forget — a face that tells stories no cover girl can. Newcomer Walker-Silverman recognizes that, casting Dickey in a rare leading role: a woman whose past is written mostly in wrinkles, rather than dialogue. We learn that Faye was married once, that she flew planes for the forest service, that she still has feelings for Lito. She wrote him a letter, suggesting a reunion. Will he come? Will they recognize one another?
Without spoiling the fragile dance that ensues, it’s worth sharing that Lito, like the director, still sees the beauty in Faye. We don’t doubt his sincerity for a second. These two characters have both loved and lost, and in one another — in the idea of what they could have had — they seem to recognize the possibility of moving forward.
It’s uncommon to stumble upon a first-time director with a sensitivity to such feelings, but Walker-Silverman’s clearly a romantic. Though not much happens in his debut (plenty will find it downright boring), “A Love Song” should resonate with those who seek truth more than incident from their movies. There’s a tender vulnerability to the way Faye and Lito approach one another. But also a toughness.
It’s the combination of those two elements that makes this such a terrific role for Dickey, one that will remind many of Fern, the character Frances McDormand played in “Nomadland.” “A Love Song” isn’t as rich a film as that one, but it shares a similar sense of lyricism, finding in the Colorado wildflowers what Chloé Zhao sees in a sunset. Faye hasn’t rejected society the way Fern did, though she has no need for it either. In one scene, she opens a calendar, closes her eyes and picks a date at random, writing “TODAY” in the square. Surely Faye’s radio would tell her what day it really is, but the point seems to be that it doesn’t matter.
Faye receives several visitors while waiting for Lito, and there’s a courteous, slightly comical quality to these interactions. She greets each of them with a generous “howdy,” and does her best to be polite. A young girl who looks and sounds like she might have stepped out of a Wes Anderson movie rewards her with the gift of a canoe — “for recreation and romantic excursions,” she says. Faye’s life is a little short on both at the moment, but it will only take a knock and a question — “What are you doing the rest of your life?” perhaps — to make her heart sing.