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Some Catching Up to Do

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Alfonso Herrera Salcedo/Sundance Institute

MOVIE REVIEW
A Love Song (2022)

A woman (Dale Dickey) is waiting. She is waiting in the middle of unusually gorgeous scenery. A large mountain in the distance towers over a gentle plain that glides down to the lake she is camping by. She is waiting in a trailer, brand new in the 1970s, hitched to a pickup truck. She has a bait trap with which she catches crawdads, almost the only thing she eats. When she makes her morning coffee she listens to music on a Longines Symphonette, a lucky radio; whenever you twist the dial it magically plays the perfect song. It’s about 10 minutes before a word is spoken aloud, and that feels like no time at all.

Her name is Faye, she was widowed a few years back, knows the area from childhood, and is not alone in her waiting. The mail is delivered to campsite No. 7 on horseback, and the affable young postman takes a friendly interest in how the letters he hands over are received. The lesbians over at site No. 2 invite her for dinner via a hand-delivered note, which leads to a nice night out under the stars chatting about love. One morning a young girl arrives with her four silent big brothers and an important request, which Faye is unable to fulfill. The girl and the brothers consult in whispers and acquiesce in understanding, but then their truck breaks down. Faye lends the engine from hers, and is handy enough to install it herself. In return she is offered the lend of a canoe, “do you good for recreation and romantic excursions.” Faye gulps, and accepts. She takes the canoe out in the lake, by herself.

Ms. Dickey radiates such battered hope that how badly she wants what she is waiting for is palpable. But of course she’s waiting for a who. His name is Lito (Wes Studi) and he knocks on her trailer door with a fistful of yellow wildflowers and a black dog. Their mutual nervousness makes their long acquaintance obvious without much being said. Their throat-catching silences also make plain just exactly how much is at stake here.

Both “A Love Song” and “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande,” about widows trying to find happiness again, had their world premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but there the resemblance pretty much ends. While the widow in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” shortcuts her desires with cash and talks to beat the band, Ms. Dickey’s Faye has little money and less desire to make a fuss about much of anything. An outdoor life shows on her face and she’s clearly used to discomfort, but she’s a practical woman given to thoughtfulness and choosing carefully. This kind of reticence is often mistaken for stupidity, but writer-director Max Walker-Silverman knows much better than that. Someone who chooses their words carefully knows the value of words, and spends them wisely.

The way in which Faye and Lito tiptoe around each other, discussing misbehavior on a high school field trip instead of why they’re really here, makes every moment an exercise in heartbreaking bravery. Their acting is so restrained yet so clear it barely feels like acting, and their authentically weathered faces show every nuance of the hopefulness and fear between them. But of course the trouble is that even alone together with their history, with their history they are never alone.

All the little moments add up to a gorgeous story about not giving up on seeing the beauty in a difficult world, and how other people might could make that easier. The Colorado scenery is so spectacular (including a shot near the end that had me gasping out loud) cinematographer Alfonso Herrera Salcedo couldn’t miss, but he makes the yellows of the leaves, the wallpaper, Faye’s hair and the flowers almost radiate heat. This movie’s battered warmth is all the more valuable for feeling so hard-won. With his first feature Mr. Walker-Silverman has delivered a knockout. The way in which a much-missed past hangs over the chance of the present flavors even the most potent joy with melancholy, but “A Love Song” knows to its core that even the most potent melancholy contains small pieces of joy. Ice cream eaten from a cone instead of a bowl. The name of every flower. The view from a mountaintop at nightfall. A hat tipped in gratitude. The smell of coffee in the morning. Knowing you can always find the perfect song. You’ll watch it with your heart in your mouth.

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