A hushed little heartbreaker about loneliness and longing in the American West, A Love Song is bound to be characterized as a sort of mini-Nomadland.
It wouldn’t be an entirely unfounded comparison. Starring formidable character actress Dale Dickey in a rare lead role as Faye, a 60ish woman living off the grid and reconnecting, for a night, with a former flame (Wes Studi), Max Walker-Silverman’s feature debut is decidedly smaller-scale than Chloé Zhao’s 2020 Oscar winner. It doesn’t have that film’s sweep, its distinct political undertones or its romanticism when it comes to American independence and wanderlust. What the two movies do share is a clear-eyed, compassionate attention to roving female protagonists, as well as themes of aging, grief and the sustaining beauty of nature.
A Love Song
The Bottom Line
A quiet soul-stirrer.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT) Writer-director: Max Walker-Silverman Cast: Dale Dickey, Wes Studi, Michelle Wilson, Benja K. Thomas, John Way, Marty Grace Dennis
1 hour 21 minutes
But whereas Nomadland’s Fern (Frances McDormand) balked at settling down with a suitor (David Strathairn) — holding fast to her self-sufficiency, her mobility and the memory of her dead husband — Faye all but trembles with yearning for companionship and connection.
In that bone-deep melancholy, and in the broad outlines of its story, A Love Song may also call to mind other screen portraits of people subsisting along the frayed margins of society, including Robin Wright’s recent Land and works from indie auteurs Debra Granik and Kelly Reichardt. If the film doesn’t exactly transcend its familiarity (the elegiac tone, the sun-baked, wind-swept scenery, the wistful acoustic guitar score), it succeeds, often with understated magnificence, in finding ways to sidestep it — to make you not mind in the slightest.
That’s thanks in large part to the wonderful central duo, the indelibly expressive texture of their faces and timbre of their voices. They give the movie spark and feeling, as do the seamless sense of place, gorgeous country-folk-blues-rock soundtrack and gentle absurdist flourishes that suggest influences from Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant to the Coen brothers at their least caustic and Wes Anderson at his least arch. With its unflashy confidence and finely calibrated emotion, A Love Song leaves you excited to see what the writer-director does next, perhaps in less charted territory.
When we meet Faye, she’s set up in her trailer at a lakeside Colorado campsite. The film’s opening minutes efficiently establish her routine: catching and boiling crawfish for meals, listening to music on her transistor radio, memorizing bird sounds and constellations with the help of Audubon guides, and taking in the splendor of the water and mountains while sipping from a can of beer or cup of coffee.
Though Faye’s calendar tells us it’s 2020, there’s no cellphone or laptop in sight. Wisely, the film never tries to convince us as to whether this is a sign of freedom or isolation, empowerment or apathy. But it soon becomes clear that Faye is waiting for someone: Each time a friendly courier (John Way) passes — accompanied by a horse with bins of mail strapped to his back — Faye perks up expectantly.
One day, just when Faye is ready to pack it in and move on, Lito (Studi) arrives with his dog and a bouquet of wildflowers. Bits of backstory emerge from their haltingly tender initial conversations: Faye and Lito grew up together in the area and were friends throughout school; her beloved husband died seven years ago; he, too, was happily married and is now widowed. They haven’t seen each other in decades, but recently made plans to meet at this very campsite. Here they are.
What transpires over the next hour isn’t particularly unexpected or dramatic. Words are exchanged, though not many (think of Lito and Faye as the anti-Jesse-and-Celine from Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy). Food and drink are shared, music played. There’s a kiss that feels more like an unburdening, a mutual recognition of a common pain, than anything erotic. But the intimacy between these characters is quietly soul-stirring. We sense that beneath the spareness of their phrases and gestures, this night is shifting their insides and shuffling their perspectives; choices once made are being reconsidered, second chances contemplated.
Dickey can project pure fearsomeness (who could forget her smashing Jennifer Lawrence in the head with a mug in Winter’s Bone?), the pale blue twinkle of her eyes freezing into a cruel gaze. But here, that gloriously grooved face softens, filling with childlike excitement, then disappointment and, in one shattering shot near the end, utter despondency. She and Studi, exuding an effortless blend of decency, mischief and sorrow, layer their performances with tiny but telling details: the girlish giggle that escapes Faye when Lito takes a photo of her; his grin, somewhere between teasing and bashful, or the way his voice trails off at the end of certain sentences. I could have watched these two awkwardly assemble, then savor, ice cream cones or sing and strum along in an impromptu duet of Michael Hurley’s “Be Kind to Me” 10 times over.
But leaving you wanting more is preferable to the alternative, and A Love Song’s minimalism — its refusal to pad the story with excess sentiment or didacticism (an indirect reference to climate change is apt and discreet) — is a strength. Walker-Silverman, working with DP Alfonso Herrera Salcedo, mixes up the movie’s naturalism with flashes of more stylized visual humor — deadpan compositions, a smash cut here, a whip pan there. And he makes judicious use of close-ups, filling the frame with his leads but also pulling back to place them in context, whether it’s the tight vintage interior of Faye’s camper or the golden-hued scenery that surrounds it. They may be solitary figures, the filmmaker seems to be insisting, but Faye and Lito are too engaged with the world — in particular, this land they love — to be alone.
Per American-road-movie tradition, music plays a key role here, the songs drifting out from Faye’s radio (gems like Taj Mahal’s “Lovin’ in My Baby’s Eyes,” Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree” and Valerie June’s “Slip Slide on By”) in a kind of recurring dialogue with her thoughts and desires. The tunes keep her going, even as death hovers at close range via recollections of deceased spouses and relatives, as well as a family of courtly cowhands looking to dig up a relative buried under Faye’s trailer.
The latter belong to a gallery of oddball peripheral characters — including the cheerful mailman and a chatty lesbian couple (Michelle Wilson and Benja K. Thomas) — who lighten the mood, keeping our protagonist grounded in the present and offering her glimmers of faith in the future. They weave a small but vital web of kindness and community around Faye, reminding her, as Lito’s visit does, that needing other people is part of being alive.