This is a reprint of our review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance alum So Yong Kim returns to Park City with a quiet, evocative look at the intimacies and intricacies of female friendship. Sarah (Riley Keough) and Mindy (Jena Malone) make the sort of mismatched pair young women sort themselves into in their early 20s, as if to balance each other out, each seeing the other as a compliment to their own lack. By the time they meet up at the beginning of “Lovesong,” they’re living wildly different adult lives, but the pull between them is stronger than ever.
Sarah is a young married mother whose husband (Cary Joji Fukunaga) can barely be bothered to Skype during his constant traveling; she’s left to her own devices in their big house in the suburbs, with her spirited three-year-old daughter Jessie (So Yong Kim’s daughter, Jessie Gray) as her only companion. Mindy comes to town so the three of them can go on a little road trip, and although the two haven’t kept in close touch over the past few years, Mindy’s playfulness and vivacity bring Sarah back to life. Mindy sings songs with Jessie and entertains her while slipping Sarah booze from a brown bag, essentially stepping in as a co-parent to briefly lessen her friend’s load. A late-night game of Truth or Drink has the old friends comparing notes on sexual misadventures that get more serious as they empty the bottle. They go from giggling over anal sex to talking about an aborted college threesome, a revelation that says as much about Sarah’s insecurity as it does their latent desire. The messy intimacy they crave comes to a head, but it proves too intense to sustain.
The two reunite three years later when Mindy invites Sarah to her wedding and asks Jessie (now six, played by So Yong Kim’s oldest daughter, Sky Gray) to be her flower girl. Echoing the road trip of years past, Sarah and Jessie head down to Tennessee for a few days of revelry before Mindy’s wedding to Leif (Ryan Eggold). Outwardly, the two women have changed, but it’s clear their feelings haven’t.
Sarah and Mindy are sort of hazy as characters, but Malone and Keough flesh them out and give them heft. Mindy has all the outer signifiers of a bad girl, from her severe blonde bob and black fingernails, cigarettes and allusions to multiple lovers, but Malone brings a sweetness to the character. Mindy takes care of Sarah, whether that’s by entertaining Jessie when Sarah needs a break or holding her friend’s hair back as she vomits; she’s flirtatious and cool with guys, but when she hugs Sarah, it’s with a touching hunger and vulnerability. “Lovesong” is the first movie to offer Keough a role she can really inhabit and own, even though Sarah is a slip of a character, just another brunette with less sexual experience than her blonde friend, someone softer and quieter, who assumes all men would prefer Mindy’s company over her own. “Lovesong” is carried by the actors’ chemistry and body language — the pain of depression creasing Sarah’s face as she sinks into the bathtub early on in the film, the way her face relaxes in the sunshine as Mindy drives, the way Sarah transforms from a frazzle-haired young housewife to a woman who’s just a little bit more certain of what she wants. Both Jessie and Sky Gray are excellent, vital additions to the cast.
So Yong Kim relies heavily on the actors and the environment to carry the narrative, which is both the strength and the major failing of “Lovesong.” The script gestures at a troubled backstory for Mindy and her mother, played by Rosanna Arquette, but those scenes feel tacked-on and empty. There are also a few random scenes with Leif and his family that don’t add much. Although “Lovesong” clocks in at roughly 85 minutes, the pacing drags. The scenes with other people, aside from Jessie, are irregular enough to be intrusive; whether that’s on purpose or not — to make us feel like we’re part of Mindy and Sarah’s intimate bubble, or that given a few different choices, they could be a family themselves — it doesn’t serve the movie too well. Being in that bubble is cozy and warm, and even though we can’t stay in it forever, it’s nice while it lasts. [B+]