Photo: Strand

Realism is almost always a good thing in relationship studies. (Who wants to watch one that bears no resemblance to the way people actually interact?) But it can’t be the only thing. If it is, even those nodding in recognition may end up just nodding off. With Lovesong, writer-director So Yong Kim tells the story of two friends shifting in and out of estrangement, their complicated feelings for each other acting as both a repellant and a magnetic force. Everything here, from the personalities to the milieu to the main situation, feels fairly authentic. The movie, in other words, makes no obviously false steps. But that’s mostly because it just kind of sits there, passively observing its characters, perhaps in hope that the believability of the events will automatically breed drama or a thesis or a philosophy or something. It doesn’t.

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In a role wildly different from the bikini-clad boss she played in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, Riley Keough stars as Sarah, a young mother caught in the grips of a nagging dissatisfaction. Sarah’s husband is always away on business, leaving her to care for their 3-year-old daughter (Jessie Ok Gray) all by herself. So it’s a nice change of pace when she’s paid a visit by an old friend, Mindy (Jena Malone), who she hasn’t really seen since college, and the three embark on an unplanned road trip through the Poconos. But as they catch up and swap stories and have a few drinks, something ends up happening between Sarah and Mindy—an unexpected development that sends the latter flying back out of the former’s life as quickly as she reentered it. It’s another three years before they see each other again, when Sarah learns that Mindy is engaged and drives to Nashville for the wedding.

Again, nothing that happens in the movie stretches credibility. Sarah and Mindy both seem like real friends with a real history (credit the chemistry between the leads for that), and the way they dance around each other—unsure if what they’re feeling is genuine or just a product of mutual loneliness—rings mostly true. What’s more, the film’s second half, after the big temporal leap, is constructed around a relatable, dramatically fertile scenario: attending the nuptials of someone you haven’t seen in forever, carrying ancient baggage like an unwanted wedding present. And yet Kim is so committed to her observational naturalism, and so allergic to melodrama, that the powder keg of this awkward reunion remains unlit; she keeps everything in a politely melancholic limbo for the entire running time. It’s the kind of movie that makes you pine for a tackier, less subtle version of the same story, because at least that one might push the people on screen out of their near-silent funk.

Kim made her debut about a decade ago with In Between Days, a sharply defined character study about a Korean immigrant wrestling with her new life in America. And she showed additional promise with her second feature, Treeless Mountain, which boldly adopted the tunnel-vision of two very young siblings, the plot unfolding almost entirely from their toddler perspectives. Since then, though, her work has grown increasingly indistinct, seemingly in concert with her move from nonprofessional actors to indie stars: Lovesong, like the dour Paul Dano vehicle that preceded it, veers dangerously close to generic, even as its lack of affectation and pint-sized costar express shades of a directorial personality. (Kim’s occasional weakness for visual cliché—close-ups in bobbing handheld, transitional shots of trees swaying in the breeze—is less fortunately accounted for.) What stands out most are the performances, delivered by two actresses capable of generating a little emotion, even in a film that insists on keeping the volume “realistically“ low. The reality between the two of them is the one that really counts.

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