Every once in awhile, I’ll see a film that makes me want to be outside in what I consider to be humanity’s true church: nature. The quiet and simple little indie picture, “A Love Song,” written and directed by Max Walker-Silverman, is such a movie – even if its two main characters are mostly car camping by a lake the whole time.
The movie is set in a gorgeous campground out West, it was shot early during the pandemic in southwestern Colorado, and features very little dialogue. The small cast is led by the great character actress, Dale Dickey, who is finally given a lead role and knocks it out of the park, or campground rather, and Wes Studi as her old friend, as well as a handful of minor supporting characters, including two nearby campers and a little girl who provides some mild comedic relief, usually by speaking for a group of silent young men who appear to not speak English, yet understand it.
The story is fairly simple: Faye, played by Dickey, is a recently widowed woman who has parked her truck and small camper in space #7 of a campground overlooking a beautiful lake, wide expanse of land, and a distant mountain. We slowly learn that she is waiting for a mysterious man from her distant past, an old friend named Lito (Studi) who we later discover also lost a life partner.
The movie takes its time with Faye whiling the days away catching crawfish, reading books, or simply sitting and staring into the distance, hoping her friend will arrive. We don’t know much about the nature of their relationship, which is one of this film’s greatest strengths, it’s ability to withhold information and allow the viewer’s imagination to engage. Immediately, we can tell that Faye is a tough and self-sufficient woman who has experienced plenty, if only from the deep lines in her weathered face (you may remember Dickey as the menacing West Virginia woman who smacks Jennifer Lawrence in the face with a coffee mug in “Winter’s Bone”).
As Faye waits she has some drily funny little encounters with a young girl and a group of men whose truck has broken down – as well as a lesbian couple that invites her over for dinner. Then, just when she is ready to finally give up on waiting, her friend and his dog show up and the two of them bond like any old friends might do, basking in each other’s company, sharing memories and enjoying the outdoors.
In one scene, they sit down to play music together, singing the Michael Hurley song, “Be Kind to Me” (Hurley is a great jazz/blues/folk musician who used to live in Richmond, but now resides outside Portland, Or.) This is another of this movie’s strengths: its terrific soundtrack of country folk gems. Nearly every time Faye turns on her vintage transistor radio, she hears another lovely song that seems to relate to her innermost feelings, from Taj Mahal’s “Lovin’ in my Baby’s Eyes,” to the Jerry Jeff Walker gem, “About Her Eyes,” the rootsy “Shake Sugaree” by Elizabeth Cotton and Brenda Evans, or the deeply felt, “The Way You Smile,” by Blaze Foley. Great songs, all; there’s also an effective instrumental score by Ramzi Bashour.
Music feels like a key metaphor for the film’s view of life. In one of the best examples of Dickey’s wonderful acting melding with the nicely restrained script, Faye speaks about how “when love finally came, it was just so simple … I finally understood what all those songs were about.” Dickey expertly conveys Faye’s great humbling at this realization.
There are heartrending moments between the two friends, but it’s best not to say more about what happens. Dickey’s performance is a marvel of quiet self-reflection (Studi also does fine work), the film’s sun-dappled photography and sound work together to gorgeous effect –you can almost feel the wind off the lake– and in a relatively quick 81 minutes, “A Love Song” manages to portray the bittersweet nature of aging and coming to terms with loss, past and present, with a subtle, masterful touch.
One’s enjoyment of this film might boil down to how well you tolerate “slow” movies where not much happens. From my perspective, I’d list this as one of my top ten favorite American films of the year, not only for Dickey’s performance, but because it’s so refreshing to watch something not concerned with politics, messaging, or any of the many problems in the world — save for a few human beings helping each other move on.
In severely depressing times, this is a sweetly hopeful film that seems to believe that human beings will continue to make it through and “be alright,” despite all evidence to the contrary. The only loose reference to global warming is when Faye notes that the lake used to rise much higher back in their childhood days. At its best, “A Love Song” evokes the sublime feeling of a sudden, illuminating sunset that stops your busy day in its tracks, forcing you to notice the golden here and now.
And in a modern world driven by productivity algorhythms, 24-7 technology and surveillance capitalism, it feels cleansing to be reminded of the soul-restoring beauty in simply doing nothing but sitting outside in the wild, by a lake, sharing the human emotions that bind us all – or maybe just reading by the water.
“There’s days and there’s nights, and I got a book for each,” Faye says.