A woman waits by herself in a camper beside a lake surrounded by what seems like dry, empty land. By day, she reads an Audubon guide to birds; by evening, a guide to the stars — and it seems she’s been there a while, because she has memorized the birdcalls and the stars’ places in the night sky. The woman, named Faye and played by veteran character actress Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone, Unbelievable), subsists on crawdads she has caught herself and listens to the radio. Every once in a while, a young man on a bike brings by the mail, and she becomes briefly excited that something might have arrived for campsite No. 7. Usually, nothing has.
Then, one day, someone arrives: Lito (played by Wes Studi), the man she has been waiting for. They’ve known each other since they were kids but haven’t seen each other in ages. Not quite old flames — they talk of a hesitant attempt at a kiss a long time ago — both were married to others at one point. But now that their significant others have died, they have arranged, in their own shy and uncertain way, to meet up again by this quiet lake.
Like a coy, concise short story you might remember having read years ago, A Love Song is the simplest of tales, but there’s a complex universe of longing contained within it. Most of it comes thanks to its two stars — two of our greatest supporting actors getting the rare chance to take center stage. Dickey and Studi are renowned for their tough demeanors, but here, thanks to the attentive, lingering patience of director Max Walker-Silverman, we see genuine tenderness. (It’s a shame that mainstream cinema has trained us to think of such human and familiar faces as tough, weathered, even menacing — or, as Dickey herself once put it, “mean and hard.”)
Tenderness and hesitation. Neither Faye nor Lito knows what to do next once they’ve met back up, and as they gently dance around their feelings, we get glimmers of their past lives. There’s very little exposition or backstory in A Love Story, but there’s just enough of it — a word here, a memory there — that the two central characters come through as real people, relatable yet mysterious. As we watch them, we may start to sense that we’ve caught Faye and Lito at transitional points in their lives. Neither really knows what their next act holds. They don’t even know if they’ll be together. At one point, they play music together, and for a second, their reunion feels fleeting and glorious.
The setting plays an important role here, clearly. That the film takes place at a campsite — a point of temporary stasis — makes some metaphorical sense. Early on, Faye is clearly in a holding pattern — her life shorn of anything extraneous or permanent. She even lets a family of cowboys take the engine out of her pickup after theirs goes bust; that’s not a sign that she intends to stay but, rather, that she doesn’t know what to do with herself. Later, as she and Lito sit atop a small overhang, their legs dangling in the air, they remember that the lake used to reach all the way to that spot. The changing land echoes the changing people — and vice versa. It’s all supremely touching and evocative without ever feeling too on-the-nose or heavy-handed.
A Love Song may not be perfect. At times, Walker-Silverman goes for an arch, deadpan, posed style that suggests he has spent plenty of time with the independent cinema of the 1980s and early ’90s, but it doesn’t feel entirely in line with the highly lived-in, naturalistic performances of his two leads. Still, this adds to the handmade, modest charm of the film. Besides, the director knows what he’s got with these two actors, and he wisely lets them take over the screen whenever possible. This approach pays off beautifully. A Love Song is a small gem.
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