'Lovesong': Sundance Review

An insightful and superbly acted study of ambiguous love.

Riley Keough and Jena Malone star as former college friends — and perhaps more — in So Yong Kim's Sundance U.S. Dramatic Competition entry.

In Lovesong, a delicate heartbreaker about friendship, desire and the occasionally blurred line between the two, Riley Keough and Jena Malone play young women with an instantly recognizable bond. Sarah (Keough), pensive and unassuming, is a stay-at-home mom married to a man who’s always away on business. Mindy (Malone) is an effusive free spirit with bleached blonde hair and hipster bangs, the kind of longtime partner in crime who can coax Sarah out from behind her inhibitions with a shot of whiskey and a tug toward the dance floor.

If that description makes Sarah and Mindy seem like types, and their relationship predictable, rest assured: The wonder of this new film from So Yong Kim (In Between Days, Treeless Mountain, For Ellen) is how deftly it digs beneath the clichés and formulas of familiar sub-genres (female friendship movie, road movie, lesbian romance) to come up with something specific, nuanced and insightful. It’s a quiet drama, full of unspoken hurt and free of histrionics, but it’s as raw and painful as a fresh wound.

The precise nature of Sarah and Mindy's feelings for one another — along with the question of whether they're willing to explore those feelings — is the source of the movie's slow-burning suspense, as well as the confusion it may provoke in viewers. But what the superbly matched actresses and their director portray so persuasively in Lovesong is, by nature, confusing (as much to the protagonists as to us): an ambiguous yearning that lies in some hazy overlap between platonic and romantic, leaving both women uncertain of how to define it, and even less certain of how to proceed.

It's Kim's strongest film to date, a far more involving showcase for her brand of minimalism than her last effort, 2010's ho-hum Paul Dano vehicle For Ellen. The difference this time is that Kim, working from a screenplay she co-penned with husband Bradley Rust Gray (Jack & Diane), has written interesting characters and succeeds in pulling us into their inner lives. This is particularly true of Sarah, whom we first see in bed with her toddler daughter, Jessie (Jessie Ok Gray). There’s an unmistakable tenderness between them, but also weariness in Sarah's demeanor and perhaps a hint of neglect in her mess of tangled hair and pale complexion.

Soon after Sarah's husband Dean (played by director Cary Joji Fukunaga) informs her via Skype that he has no idea when he'll be back from a work trip (red flag!), Mindy shows up for a visit. Plying Sarah with liquor and pep talks ("Fuck Dean!" she proclaims more than once), Mindy takes the wheel with her friend beside her, Jessie babbling adorably in the back seat and the open road stretched out before them. Though it's not clear where they go or why — Kim largely avoids context and exposition — the most essential thing is conveyed via close-ups of Sarah gazing out the car window, the wind in her hair and a mixture of relief and release creeping across her face.

Those kinds of wordlessly expressive facial close-ups dominated Kim’s first two movies, the Korean-language In Between Days and Treeless Mountain. Lovesong finds her stepping back from her subjects more often, filling her frame with Sarah and Mindy’s surroundings (a gas station, a rodeo, a fair) and pausing to capture a daddy longlegs, a dew-covered leaf, a deer grazing. This more supple, searching visual approach reflects the director’s attempt to anchor her story in the real world and to invest it with a universality of experience that the earlier films, despite their tales of loneliness and longing, lacked.

What Kim is after here is nothing less than the magic of two people connecting, and the conversations between Sarah and Mindy — revelations and reminiscences punctuated by giggles and drunken burps — are written and played with a fine-tuned sense of how close friends interact when they're no longer daily fixtures in each other’s lives.

The filmmaker also is able to suggest the women’s evolving relationship without any dialogue at all. In one casually stunning scene on a Ferris wheel, she mutes the ambient noise, training her camera first on Malone and then on Keough as they lock eyes, suspended in mid-air. It may sound cheesy, but as a snapshot of a dawning attraction it's more vivid and convincing than anything in Carol, a movie Lovesong calls to mind in theme if not in style, tone or setting.

Without giving too much away, Sarah and Mindy’s reunion comes to an abrupt end, and the story jumps ahead three years to Sarah and Jessie (now played by Sky Ok Gray) arriving in Nashville for Mindy's wedding weekend. It's a jarring shift: The lulling intimacy of the film's first section is replaced by the anxious comings and goings of the nuptials, where Mindy’s mother (a fine Rosanna Arquette) sulks on the sidelines and a brash maid-of-honor (Brooklyn Decker in a broadly written role — the movie's one false note) seems to be running the show.

If this second act is less surefooted than the first, it also peels back the layers of two characters we may have thought we had pegged. Suffice it to say that Lovesong reveals itself to be a wise and wistful movie, one that recognizes humans as complicated, changing, contradictory creatures, and time as a force that can heal, but also harden and close doors.

Malone is a force of an actress (as demonstrated in the last three Hunger Games films, and just about everything else she did before) who also knows how and when to dial it back — an invaluable skill. The revelation here, though, is Keough (Elvis Presley's granddaughter and a supporting player in The Runaways, Magic Mike and Mad Max: Fury Road), who looks like Kristen Stewart but has a presence all her own. She gives a performance of exquisitely modulated understatement, often expressing a storm of conflicting emotions with nothing more than a few "likes" and "ums” — or, in the final scene, a smile.

That small smile sums up many of the big things this deceptively modest film has on its mind — namely the different kinds of love, and how we try, and sometimes fail, to make sense of them and make room for them in our lives.

Production companies: Autumn Productions, Gamechanger Films
Cast: Riley Keough, Jena Malone, Brooklyn Decker, Rosanna Arquette, Ryan Eggold, Jessie Ok Gray, Sky Ok Gray, Cary Joji Fukunaga
Director: So Yong Kim
Writers: So Yong Kim, Bradley Rust Gray
Editors: So Yong Kim, Bradley Rust Gray
Producers: Alex Lipschultz, Bradley Rust Gray, Johnny Mac, David Hansen
Executive producers: Mynette Louie, Laura Rister, Julie Parker Benello, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger
Directors of photography: Kat Westergaard, Guy Godfree
Production designer: Bart Mangrum

Music: Johann Johansson
Casting directors: Cindy Tolan, Adam Caldwell

85 minutes