'Lorelei': Film Review | Tribeca 2020

Courtesy of Brian Brose
An uneven blue-collar melodrama lifted by its leads.

Pablo Schreiber and Jena Malone star as high school sweethearts who reconnect 15 years later in this debut feature from Sabrina Doyle and the producers of 'The Florida Project.'

A shaky narrative is given ballast by two vivid and well-matched leads in Sabrina Doyle’s exasperating, sporadically touching feature debut, the blue-collar melodrama Lorelei. As former high school sweethearts reconnecting amid dire socioeconomic circumstances, Pablo Schreiber and Jena Malone hustle to overcome movie-ish dialogue and clichéd story dynamics, investing their life-bruised characters with authentic feeling. They're enough to make you care about the film — and the people in it — even at its clumsiest.

And clumsy it often is. A collaboration between writer-director Doyle and The Florida Project producers Francesca Silvestri and Kevin Chinoy, Lorelei feels stuck halfway between male weepie (à la last year's prison-set The Mustang or, to cite a superior contemporary example, Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler) and romantic two-hander. The film ends up tilting toward the former, suggesting its makers' misguided belief that Schreiber's character, an Oregon ex-convict trying to scrape a life back together, is the more interesting of the pair.

In press notes, Doyle names Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas as an inspiration. And though Lorelei has little of the earlier film's haunted surrealism or mysteriousness, the movies share an interest in a man's journey toward redemption rather than the female bid for independence that catalyzes it. In Wenders' work, that felt like a choice; here, it registers as a function of indecisiveness.

That indecisiveness extends to Doyle's aesthetic approach, an uneasy blend of realism and lyricism. Much of Lorelei plays like a junior varsity entry in a streak of strong American regional indies from directors like Debra Granik, Kelly Reichardt and Chloé Zhao, and, more recently, Annabelle Attanasio (Mickey and the Bear) and Annie Silverstein (Bull). Elsewhere, it takes off in jarring, wincingly earnest flights of fantasy and dream imagery revolving around a water motif. The effort is bold and sincere, but to call the result unwieldy would be an understatement.

All that said, there's a lot to root for here — including a powerful sense of place and the scrappy intensity of those central performances, which see Lorelei through its variety of frustrations.

The film opens with Wayland (Schreiber) being released from a 15-year jail sentence, welcomed back by a cohort of motorcycle dudes. Proceeding to show the guys around a bonfire, guzzling beer, shooting guns and frolicking with scantily clad women, Doyle clearly — if not very subtly — establishes her protagonist's particular milieu and brand of American masculinity. (Politics are never invoked, but the crowd gives off big rural Pacific Northwest MAGA vibes).

The next morning, Wayland is dropped off at a church halfway house run by Pastor Gail (Trish Egan). That's where, one night, he spots Dolores (Malone) attending a single mom's support group. It turns out the two were together as teens, right up until Wayland was sent away for armed robbery. Dolores, aka Lola, was a swimming star whose Olympic dreams were dashed by an unplanned pregnancy soon after Wayland's conviction; she went on to have three kids by three different fathers.

The scenes in which Wayland and Lola catch up — on the church doorstep, then at a country bar over drinks — are the movie's best, the halting conversations conveying crucial bits of backstory (without expository clunkiness) and alive with tenderness, regret and a giddy spark of sexual attraction.

Before long, the exes have picked up where they left off. Wayland moves in with Lorelei and her children: sweet, gender-nonbinary youngest Denim (Parker Pascoe-Sheppard), volatile preadolescent Periwinkle (Amelia Borgerding) and surly teen Dodger (Chancellor Perry), who's mostly interested in bench-pressing and smoking pot.

Lola explains that she named her kids after different shades of blue, a groaningly on-the-nose indicator of her free-spiritedness (and love of the ocean). On the other hand, Denim's gender identity and Dodger's mixed-race background are handled with a lovely, glancing touch — an acknowledgment of the diversity and even tolerance that exist in pockets of America where you'd least expect them (and where people may lack the vocabulary to reflect that tolerance). Such coexistence of obviousness and nuance is typical of Lorelei.

Wayland gets a construction job and Lola cleans motel rooms to pay the bills. But financial pressures mount, leading Wayland back to some of his less savory endeavors. Meanwhile, Lola, who always dreamed of moving to L.A. but never made it out of Oregon, grows restless, as the kids become increasingly resentful of their mother's failings. Things arrive at an unpersuasive turning point, with too much plot and not enough digging into or deepening of the main characters.

Luckily, the actors fill in some of the screenplay's blanks. Schreiber, who delivered indelible supporting turns on The Wire and Orange Is the New Black, flaunts leading man chops, playing Wayland as a not-terribly-bright hulk of a man with a deep inner wound radiating pain out to the surface. He's convincing, even when saddled with near-irredeemable lines (Wayland is prone to pensively growling things like "Ain't none of us kids no more" or "I just feel like I'm goin' down the same old road").

Malone is a live wire of an actress, capable of conjuring a dazzling range of moods without hitting a false note (check her out in So Yong Kim's underseen Lovesong). Here, she makes a stock role — the grown wild child who can't be tamed — feel urgent and emotionally specific; the performance leaves you wishing the film carved out more space for Lola.

Lorelei's setting is so lived-in, its sense of small-town, working-poor struggle so acute, that the periodic forays into its characters' imaginations come off as incongruous and indulgent; they're also a bit of a cheat, convenient shortcuts to a level of interiority the movie never earns. These sequences' recurring visual theme — the sea as symbol of rebirth, yadda yadda yadda — pays off only in the stirring final frames.

On a different note, Dana Millican (Leave No Trace) spins comedy gold out of her brief appearance as a mouthy acquaintance of Wayland's. Like a lot of things in Lorelei, the scene doesn't quite fit, but it provides a welcome little jolt worth all those moments of watery whimsy combined.  

Production companies: Freestyle Picture Company
Writer-director: Sabrina Doyle
Cast: Pablo Schreiber, Jena Malone, Amelia Borgerding, Parker Pascoe-Sheppard, Chancellor Perry, Trish Egan, Dana Millican
Producers: Francesca Silvestri, Kevin Chinoy, Jennifer Radzikowski, Lara Cuddy
Executive producers: Arnold Zimmerman, Jianulla Zimmerman, Pablo Schreiber, Jena Malone
Cinematographer: Stephen Paar
Editor: Daniel Myers
Composer: Jeff Russo
Producer designer: Marissa Leguizamon
Costume designer: Critter Pierce
Casting director: Daniel Myers
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)

110 minutes