One of my grandpas died right before the pandemic. My grandma met someone in the middle of it. Her new relationship wasn’t well-liked in my family, but it made her giddy as a schoolgirl—finding another cowboy to look at livestock with, play cards with, to make dinner with. When I was little, she used to live in a trailer, driven out into the woods and bricked into the earth. I see a lot of her in writer/director Max Walker-Silverman’s sublime debut, A Love Song, where a widow and widower find a teenage verve for each other—weathered but not beaten in the sun of the American west.
Faye (Dale Dickey) lingers at one of several campsites surrounding a crawfish-filled lake, waiting for Lito (Wes Studi). She’s not sure he’ll arrive, but as we observe her daily routine—listening to birds, making coffee and catchin’ crawdads as she spins the radio dial in search of another country tune—her uneasiness is couched in a kind of contentment. Walker-Silverman situates us the same way, with ogling environmental photography that takes pleasure in a rare flowery purple on dried brown dirt and Faye’s tininess in relation to the lake, the mountains and the overwhelming dark (or starry splendor) of night. The location is spectacular but, conspicuously, never as enthralling as the actors.
When they eventually meet up, top-level turns from Studi and Dickey combine for a contained masterclass, a relationship that’s been nursing a low flame for decades. They’re shy, affectionate and oh-so awkward—spurred by nervous attraction and lingering guilt surrounding their lost loved ones—with an honesty that makes the most of a sparse and quiet script. They take photos, play music, reminisce about school days. As Dickey’s humorless laughs melt before Studi’s guileless smile—as little shrugs and hesitant touches of a car hood physically track the increasing expectation in Dickey’s beautiful blue eyes and perfectly controlled face—you realize how badly you want this for each of them.
Walker-Silverman and cinematographer Alfonso Herrera Salcedo catch all of this in the bright sun and the low light of dusk. The intertwining textures of wrinkles, wedding rings, bracelets and hair—wispy or still-luxurious—make the emotions between the two nearly tangible. It’s so romantic that your heart breaks before you know how it’ll shake out.
But it’d be too slight just observing this connection. Counterbalancing this sweet intensity, A Love Song is peppered with quirky incidents that have a precision of framing and an amusement with over-formality that feels vaguely like Wes Anderson on a dude ranch, in the best way. It’s all still earnest and warm-hearted, but odd enough to remind you about the world beyond Faye’s trailer and beyond her expectations. Even still, the film reminds me a little of Sundance 2021’s Land, which saw Robin Wright direct herself in a bittersweet rural romance, but with far more soul. Is that soul inherently baked into the lines on Studi and Dickey’s faces? I don’t think so, but A Long Song knows how to use their visible age as a compliment. As a sign that time goes on; leaving marks, but none important enough to obscure the things that matter.
A Love Song’s a brief and pretty little thing—less than 90 minutes—with the warm melancholy of revisiting a memory or, yes, an old jukebox love song. Walker-Silverman displays a keen eye, a deep heart and a sense of humor just silly enough to sour the saccharine. Dickey takes advantage of one of the best roles she’s ever had to tap into something essential about loss, lonesomeness and resilience. Her performance is a gift, one given by someone who knows about simple pleasures and those that last—how both are important, and how they might not always be separate. As much as my family is a little stiff towards my grandma’s new beau, there’s still a begrudging happiness that she’s (re)discovered something. Even if it doesn’t work out between the two, or if they suffer another loss, their relationship serves as a reminder to them both. Not just about what can be found in others, but what others can inspire in yourself.
Director: Max Walker-Silverman
Writers: Max Walker-Silverman
Stars: Dale Dickey, Wes Studi, Michelle Wilson, Benja K. Thomas, John Way, Marty Grace Dennis
Release Date: January 20, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.