A woman awakens in a trailer, parked near the Colorado Rockies. She wades into a body of water, pulling out a small lobster cage, then goes back into her modest mobile home to heat up a pot. Coffee is made. A transistor radio is turned on. On a booskhelf sits two Audubon guides, one for birds and the other for star constellations. In front of her sits an American landscape of almost indescribable beauty. She’s alone, silent, contemplative and comfortable in her pastoral solitude. This is a lady used to waiting for something. Or, maybe, someone.
One of the multitude of pleasures in A Love Song, writer-director Max Walker-Silverman’s elliptical yet deeply emotional character study, is that you eventually get to know this older woman, informational drip by informational drip, according to her own timetable. Her name is Faye. She was married at one point, and there’s a reason she’s in this particular lot in this particular trailer park. Whenever she encounters other folks — a couple on a “proposal” road trip that’s hit a snag, a family looking to excavate a relative’s remains, the local mailman — Faye is polite but reticent. She’s neighborly enough to literally give someone the engine out of her car when their truck’s motor sputters and stalls. But there’s something withholding about her. Faye’s mind is perpetually elsewhere.
Because, seven years ago, Faye wrote a letter to a childhood friend named Lito. Both have a lot of life under their belt. Both have loved and lost. He told her that he had a gray car and a black dog. She told him she’d be here, in this lot by the water, and to come visit. There’s a lot going on behind that casual invitation — a palpable one-who-got-away sense of pining. Then, one day, he shows up on her doorstep, wildflowers in hand. And you’re witnessing something that is either, at long last, beginning … or slowly coming to an end.
There’s a genuine sense of admiration for these two middle-aged characters emanating from behind the camera, and you get the feeling that Walker-Silverman, a young filmmaker with a handful of shorts to his name, isn’t that interested in too-cool-for-film-school showboating. (That said, it won’t surprise anyone to learn that this premiered at Sundance and comes flecked with bits of traditional Sundance quirkiness, from deadpan reaction shots to a precocious kid in a cowboy hat randomly giving Faye a canoe “for recreation and romantic excursions.”) He’s more into giving his actors a showcase. One actor in particular, and it’s here that you discover the real object of A Love Song‘s tender affections.
Dale Dickey and Wes Studi have, between the two of them, over 100 credited roles in TV and movies, and even more stolen scenes embedded within those projects; decades-old or not, the phrase “character actor” could have been invented for them. If you’ve seen Winter’s Bone or True Blood, Heat and The Last of the Mohicans, you know these supporting players intimately. They rarely get the spotlight, however, and to watch these two veterans infuse a sense of life lived, one full of heartbreak and fading happiness, into Faye and Lito is to be reminded why these “smaller,” Indiewood-type films remain so vital to well-balanced cinematic diets. The interplay between the two of them, with each gingerly trying to connect after so many years apart and risk even the dimmest spark being resuscitated, gives the low-key story a sense of high stakes. You can see these two performers drawing things out of other onscreen, teasing and testing each other with every tentative attempt to see if it’s finally Faye and Lito’s time to make good on old promises.
But make no mistake: A Love Song is, first and foremost, a love letter to Dickey. A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, who might have walked straight out of a Walker Evans photo, she’s often been cast as tough matriarchs and economic fringe dwellers, with that beautiful face of hers too often used as an onscreen shorthand for hard times. Here, however, Dickey gets to play the scales, and prove that she’s as deft a soloist as she is a singer in the chorus. She’s in every scene, sometimes not saying a word, and yet you get all of Faye’s hesitations, hopes, self-sufficient leanings, loneliness, scars, and eventually, her sense of her place in a world she may have once shunned. One sideways glance from Dickey is worth a thousand what-if monologues. A morning greeting to an empty side of her bed plays like a six-word Hemingway short story. Watch her gently light up (and try to hide her joy) when Studi asks if he can take her picture. It’s the sort of performance that makes you stop taking great actors for granted. And while she’s nothing if not a team player, Dickey proves that she’s earned this center-stage turn. Many voices contribute to this modest, delicate love song. Hers is the one you hear the loudest, and the one that truly, madly, deeply cracks you in half.
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