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Russell Harbaugh’s Love After Love is a contemplative drama in which the characters consider one another’s behavior with an attention matched by the director’s acute eye for detail. Elegant and unsentimental, this is a minor-key, wintry ensemble piece with an emotional hold that sneaks up on you. A granular portrait of a family in the years following the death of its patriarch, the film draws richly shaded performances from a strong cast headed by Chris O’Dowd, effectively tamping down his natural funnyman instincts, alongside Andie MacDowell in her most nuanced role in years.
The screenplay by Harbaugh and Eric Mendelsohn invites comparison to the work of Kenneth Lonergan, with its knack for locating weight in seemingly inconsequential moments. But the movie belongs to a school of melancholy American domestic drama that stretches back to Woody Allen’s Interiors. However, while that film’s veneration for Ingmar Bergman meant every scintilla of the sturm und drang was thrashed out onscreen in hyper-articulate dialogue, Love After Love is more notable for how much is left unspoken.
Harbaugh clearly knows and loves his characters, even at their most imperfect, and that intimacy allows him to dispense almost entirely with conventional exposition. Rather than being introduced to the family of Suzanne (MacDowell) and her ailing husband Glenn (Gareth Williams), we are thrust into their midst just like strangers at a lunch gathering in the garden outside their home in what appears to be a liberal arts college town in upstate New York.
Glenn, a writer of some note, is dying of an unspecified illness and that lunch is a prelude to his rapid decline. It also reveals the corrosive unhappiness in the marriage of eldest son Nick (O’Dowd) and his wife Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), both of whom are editors with the same publishing firm. Younger brother Chris (James Adomian) has vague aspirations to write but is rudderless and volatile, clearly not ready to witness his father so cruelly diminished. In just a handful of brief scenes, MacDowell shows how deeply Suzanne cares for her sons, even while processing her own impending loss.
The action advances with unfussy fluidity from a quick shot of Glenn’s funeral to an engagement party several months later, by which time Rebecca is history and Suzanne meets the family of Nick’s young fiancee Emilie (Dree Hemingway), an actress. Chris, possibly depressed and certainly no closer to finding direction, embarrasses the family with his messy drunkenness.
Suzanne’s initial attempts to start dating again, with a colleague from a theater program where she works, prove premature. But eventually she begins what appears to be a more promising connection with Michael (Matt Salinger), an easygoing older man with a teenage son. At the same time, she perceives the cracks in Nick’s fragile relationship with Emilie even before he does. “Rebecca was a person of real consequence,” she tells him curtly, in a comment that speaks volumes.
Many of Harbaugh’s scenes are little more than fragments, often glimpsed through doorways or from detached distances, framed from questioning angles in a grainy palette by cinematographer Chris Teague. But there’s a real breadth to the emotional canvas, and a pleasing balance among the moments of lightness with ripples of tension and shards of festering unhappiness. While it’s not always clear where the drama is headed, the director keeps us involved in these people’s lives, building to a series of particularly strong scenes in the final stretch.
One of these takes place during a birthday celebration, once Michael has officially become part of family gatherings. Putting on a hollow show of celebratory conviviality, Nick proposes a toast that seethes with resentment toward the man he sees as usurping his father’s place — and, more obliquely, toward his mother. There are also terrific moments between Nick and Rebecca, during which he reveals his regret about ending their marriage, shyly at first, and then in an open-hearted bid for her to take him back. Both actors are superb in these uncomfortable exchanges, and the excellent Rylance makes Rebecca’s kind refusal a gesture of touching compassion.
All the characters are given a satisfying sense of life continuing to evolve for them, perhaps none more so than Chris, played by Adomian with notes of fuzzy sweetness to offset the frat-boy attitude. He tries out a standup routine in which he riffs on the inevitable inadequacies of Jesus’ achievements compared to those of his father. Continuing, he then exposes his vulnerability as he reflects on the loss of his own father and the deceptive ease with which people move on.
Harbaugh coaxes fine, unfalteringly natural work from the entire cast. In the key roles, O’Dowd again proves himself an actor of significant range and sensitivity, while MacDowell swings between warmth and brittleness, with never a false note. The director layers blasts of discordant jazz and sleepy piano doodles over many scenes to interesting effect, displaying a tonal assurance and sense of economy that make this a quietly accomplished feature debut.
Production companies: Secret Engine, Weedon Media
Cast: Chris O’Dowd, Andie MacDowell, James Adomian, Juliet Rylance, Dree Hemingway, Gareth Williams, Francesca Faridany, Matt Salinger, Romy Byrne
Director: Russell Harbaugh
Screenwriters: Russell Harbaugh, Eric Mendelsohn
Producers: Lucas Joaquin, Lauren Haber, Michael Prall
Executive producers: Lars Knudsen, Eric Mendelsohn, Robert Halmi Jr., Jim Reeve
Director of photography: Chris Teague
Production designer: Erin Magill
Costume designers: Sarah Mae Burton, Cristina Spiridakis
Music: David Shire
Editors: Matthew C. Hart, John Magary
Casting: Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
Sales: ICM, Great Point Media
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