This review originally ran following the film’s world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
If a weathered heart still searching for tenderness in the twilight of life were a movie, it would be “A Love Song.” This miraculously radiant first feature from writer-director Max Walker-Silverman tells a Western romance amid constellations and birds, delayed letters and brief encounters, and the worthwhile sorrow of loving and yearning to be loved.
Placid in her self-sufficient lifestyle, lonely widow Faye (Dale Dickey) eagerly awaits the arrival of an important guest in the mountainous vastness of the Colorado terrain. On campsite seven, she catches shellfish for dinner and listens to her trusty radio, a battery-fueled portal to her emotional state that always plays a pertinent tune at the appropriate time.
With early shots of sturdy flowers, gorgeous in their bravery as they thrive on arid ground, Walker-Silverman makes a visual analogy to his leading lady’s gentle fortitude. On her face, time has carved a soul map from the joy and grief endured over decades, and now, sitting outside her camper, she hopes for the coda of her days on earth to involve companionship.
Though virtually isolated, Faye does come into contact with those in the vicinity, each on their own affection-motivated quests: a polite young cowgirl (Marty Grace Dennis) and her painfully shy older brothers asking permission for a meaningful excavation, a personable postman (John Way), and a lesbian couple in which one of them fears commitment.
At times, the tone of these visits approximates that of Wes Anderson’s amusingly offbeat works in the eccentric quality of the supporting performances and their florid dialogue, as well as in how the camera behaves around them, such as the use of a knowing pan to accentuate a humorous exchange between Faye and the well-mannered siblings.
A character actress most recently memorable in rugged familial sagas “Winter’s Bone” and “Leave No Trace,” Dickey steps into a rare lead role, a showcase of hardwearing grace and the best of her decades-long career on screen. The perceived sternness of her previous roles is substituted in “A Love Song” by a measured openness to people and to the land.
Dickey, a powerhouse of subtlety and restraint, takes the character from anticipation to resignation and ultimately to a life-affirming, unspoken epiphany. Faye shields her most fragile parts under an armor forged of solitude and heartbreak-laden song lyrics until her high-school crush Lito (Wes Studi), now a widower, appears at her doorstep.
Together again to reminisce on their tenth-grade escapades, perhaps to rekindle them for a twilight-years relationship, the two former classmates navigate this reunion, having lost their respective life partners, with caution and curiosity. In the ballad of Faye and Lito, the director undercuts sentimentality, preventing the soundtrack from soaring unchecked with the exception of Faye and Lito’s impromptu live performance of Michael Hurley’s “Be Kind to Me”
Studi matches Dickey’s unassuming sincerity, not only in that heartening musical duet but also in the comforting quietness of their confessions about what they’ve lost and what remains. Familiar as their presence in film and TV might be, to see these seasoned thespians do such resplendently subdued work is to rediscover them.
In each other’s company, the decades that distanced the characters, and the countless experiences they lived through separately, vanish momentarily in the childish delight of an ice-cream cone or in the way a candid photograph can reveal the essence of a person. What makes their outdoors rendezvous so endearing is the lack of judgment or any firm expectations of a forever after. What they see is what they get, however long it lasts.
Walker-Silverman repeatedly associates the landscape with Faye’s human preoccupations. While she laments how the water level of the lake has decreased from what she remembers, or how perhaps sheep are no longer pastured in the nearby peaks like they were in her father’s day, she also seems to be longing for the simpler days of youth. Yet the narrative demonstrates that not all is lost: Faye’s inner glow, embodied in Dickey’s demure expressions, hasn’t eroded. She deserves to experience the ebullience of being alive again.
Thanks to the exuberant eye of cinematographer Alfonso Herrera Salcedo, who plays with natural light as it grazes Dickey’s skin and makes the water glisten, the picture brims with mutedly arresting imagery. A shot of Faye’s silhouette becoming one with the mountains under a star-spangled sky makes for one of the film’s most imposingly spiritual passages.
Comparisons to recent Oscar best picture winner “Nomadland” (both movies share producer Dan Janvey) will abound, but if “A Love Song” is similar to Chloé Zhao’s reimagining of the American west, it is in both films’ delicate touch in blending the grandeur of nature with the fragility of the unvarnished human condition.
More than just an auspicious debut, this is a young director’s succinct statement on the possibility of being enamored with the wonderment in the mundane. Walker-Silverman exhibits the sensibilities of a master storyteller, capable of making his splendid writing seem effortless in its construction and then molding it into warm magic via the cast’s remarkable talent. He’s an absolute revelation among emerging voices.
As exquisitely transcendent a film as 2022 will likely see, “A Love Song” is a cinematic rhapsody told in whispers of truth that confirms that love, for a lifetime or for a moment, merits the effort to be pursued in other people and in the overlooked wonders of existence.
“A Love Song” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.