I’ve always had a deep admiration for Wes Studi and what he brings to his movies. Whether it was his role as the brutal yet complex Magua in Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans”, his often underappreciated portrayal of Geronimo in Walter Hill’s “Geronimo: An American Legend”, or playing a police detective alongside Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in “Heat”. There’s an unmistakable sincerity and gravitas Studi brings to every film he’s a part of.
So what better way to start my 2022 Sundance Film Festival than by screening a new drama that sees the 74-year-old Studi given a nice meaty role. The film is “A Love Song”, written and directed by Max Walker-Silverman. As the title suggests, this isn’t the kind of movie Studi is most known for. But for fans of his work, it’ll come as no surprise to hear that he, much like the film itself, is a joy to watch.
But the real star of “A Love Song” is Dale Dickey, an outstanding character actress who may be best remembered for her scene-stealing work in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone”. This is a rare leading role for Dickey whose name you may not remember, but whose face is impossible to forget. It’s a remarkable face chiseled out of real life and with bone-deep honesty found in every look and every expression. She’s a perfect choice for Walker-Silverman’s film which sees him working on the same lyrical meditative wavelength as Kelly Reichardt and pre-“Eternals” Chloé Zhao. But Walker-Silverman brings enough of himself to “A Long Song” to give the film its own special identity.
In “A Love Song”, Dickey brings her signature quiet intensity but this time to a much different character. Here she plays a widow named Faye who hitches her small camper trailer to her Chevy S-10 and drives it to a remote Colorado campsite. She sets up next to a small lake with the Rocky Mountains sitting in the distance like a watercolor painting still wet on the canvas. This is where she’ll stay for the rest of the film’s lean 80-minute running time.
At first, it may be tempting to get caught up in Faye’s similarities to Frances McDormand’s Fern from last year’s Best Picture winner “Nomadland” or to Robin Wright’s Edee from Sundance 2021’s “Land”. But while all three woman unquestionably have things in common, Faye has several distinctions that separates her from the other two. Those distinctions also set this movie on a different course which I was delighted to see.
We don’t learn a lot about Faye or where she came from, but that actually serves the minimalist storytelling perfectly. We do find out she once flew planes for the forestry service. She’s also one heck of a mechanic. And she loves listening to music on her Longines Symphonette World Traveler AM/FM radio. “It always plays the perfect song,” she says in a tender scene later in the film, “even if in the moment you ain’t sure why.” Faye birdwatches (poorly) during the day. Then it’s Busch beer and crawfish for dinner as she watches the sun set over the mountains. After dark, she searches the starry sky for constellations. And that’s her routine.
As you watch Faye, it’s hard to miss her melancholy gaze; the sense of loneliness; the shallowly buried heartache. The source of her sadness is the death of her husband Tommy. He’s been gone for seven years, yet you can tell she’s still carrying the weight of grief. But unlike Fern, who finds contentment in unplugging and living on the road or Edee, who disconnects from society altogether, Faye is at the lake for a specific reason. She’s waiting for someone she hopes will come.
That someone is Lito, an old classmate and crush who Faye hasn’t seen in decades. Much like Faye, Lito has recently lost his spouse, Shirley. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Lito does come and the two wounded souls reconnect. Walker-Silverman’s script allows for all of the awkwardness, uncertainty, and even guilt to bleed through. And the restraint of two performances feels as natural as the painterly surroundings that adorn nearly every frame. Their conversations are simple but true, and it’s often what goes unsaid that resonates the most. And while nothing about their reunion is assured, Faye and Lito long so deeply for companionship that it’s worth a shot.
While the theme of loneliness reverberates throughout the movie, Walker-Silverman also makes it a point to show us the essential nature of human connection. Faye has reoccurring encounters with an assortment of quirky side characters. My favorite is a well-mannered young cowgirl and her four significantly older brothers (the little sister clearly runs the show). They would feel right at home in a Coen brothers comedy. There’s also the camp’s courteous postman and a couple camped out on the other side of the lake. Their appearances may seem inconvenient, but they always pop up when Faye seems at her lowest. And their presence takes her mind off of her sadness.
With “A Love Song” Max Walker-Silverman has given us a delicate, honest, and soulful study of loss, loneliness, and navigating grief. It’s a beautiful and touching exploration, handled with keen instincts, remarkable control, and a clear affection for the story being told. Not only does the film showcase an exciting emerging voice, it also gives starring roles to two exceptional veteran actors. And that’s something all too rare in movies these days.