Directed by So Yong Kim
Opens February 17 at the Village East
Back in the simpler times of 2009—after the adult drama had become the sole province of the art house, and right before the moderate social anxiety of mumblecore gave way to the practically baroque aggression that distinguishes many of today’s microbudget features—A.O. Scott took to the pages of the Times magazine to identify an emergent “neo-neo-realism” in American independent cinema. One of the filmmakers he profiled in that piece was the Korean-American writer-director So Yong Kim, whose kid’s-eye-view second feature, Treeless Mountain, about two young sisters in Seoul whose mother has left them to their own devices, was then just finishing up a successful festival run. Kim went on to meet an altogether more muted reception with 2012’s rather dry For Ellen, in which a custody battle bums out musician Paul Dano, but, happily, her new film Lovesong, about two old friends (played by Riley Keough and Jena Malone) who find themselves unable to reckon with a newfound level of intimacy, constitutes something of a return to impressionistic form.
Written by Kim and her filmmaker husband, Bradley Rust Gray (whose directorial résumé boasts its own Keough-starring movie about the attraction between two women, 2012’s horror-tinged Jack & Diane), Lovesong opens by depicting the life of its protagonist, Sarah (Keough), as a series of parental duties—ones that she performs patiently but have left her feeling exhausted and isolated. (In a relatively rare recourse to cliché, Sarah’s husband, played by True Detective season 1 director Cary Joji Fukunaga, appears here only over a bad Skype connection.) The arrival of the more carefree Mindy (Malone), visiting from the city, helps break the monotony, and the two old friends, along with Sarah’s three-year-old, Jessie, embark on a road trip across Pennsylvania, during the course of which the adults fall into bed together. Both Sarah and Mindy’s moods seem to brighten accordingly, before the trip ends, abruptly, in a mess of wounded feelings—at which point the story picks up three years later, as Sarah heads to Mindy’s Nashville wedding, not having spoken to her at all in the elided period of time.
Kim and Gray appear to take pleasure in undercutting the romantic stateliness of this years-spanning structure, a fact that leads to an intriguing (if occasionally awkward) dissonance. Every so often, the film lapses into vulgarity: It’s during a graphic game of “truth or drink” that Sarah and Mindy first become faintly flirtatious, and later, at Mindy’s wedding, bridesmaid Brooklyn Decker goes out of her way to deliver a dirty-joke toast. Mostly, though, the near-constant presence of young Jessie ensures a stronger-than-normal sense of propriety on the part of the adults, so that most of the real drama occurs in rushed asides or indeed in what remains unsaid. Kim again proves herself to be a remarkable director of children, here coaxing her own two daughters (Jessie and Sky Ok Gray, as the character of Jessie at ages three and six, respectively) through highly naturalistic performances that emphasize the very unguardedness of youth. But in the end, the film belongs not to the kids but to Keough, who makes something as simple as a watchful pose (of which there are many here) into an event that in turn demands the viewer’s attention, suggesting her reflexive reluctance to make herself in any way vulnerable, while at the same time betraying the barely restrained strength of her desire. Lovesong feels like such an observant film precisely because its lead actress is so good at playing the observer.