For a few lyrical stretches in Kelly Reichardt's beautiful Old Joy, there's a sound you rarely hear in American movies—silence, or at least the gentle assertions of nature when people aren't yapping over it. And for Reichardt, the space between conversations speaks loud enough, whether the silence signifies an awkward divide that two uncertain friends can no longer fill, or merely an idyllic break from the clamor of everyday life. Either way, Old Joy feels like the flip side to Andrew Bujalski's Mutual Appreciation: The former keeps quiet, the latter can't stop talking, but both have a level of insight into young adulthood that far exceeds their pricier "independent" cousins.
Through the simplest of setups, Reichardt reveals two men who have reached a crisis point in their individual lives and their friendship. Married with a baby on the way, Daniel London seems eager to get away from this ticking time bomb, if only for a couple of days. When his old friend Will Oldham suggests a camping trip up in Oregon's Cascade Mountains, London jumps at the opportunity, even though things have grown a little awkward between them. However reluctantly London embraces the prospect of fatherhood, his tentative advancement into adult responsibility has left his wayward friend Oldham in the dust. For his part, Oldham seems stuck in post-graduate townie phase, still advancing fanciful dreams in lieu of a real plan and retreating into a stoned haze at every opportunity.
The bald fact that these friends have grown apart asserts itself in a couple of painful exchanges, but never to the point of melodramatic eruption. More often, their estrangement doesn't need to be vocalized, because Reichardt suggests it so beautifully in the pained rhythms of their conversation and a slightly mournful tone. At the same time, this weekend in the woods represents a genuine escape for the characters, and Old Joy perks up with several lyrical sequences in the natural world, highlighted by a visit to hot springs that serves as the film's moving centerpiece. For such a simple, determinedly minor film, it's remarkable how much insight and feeling Reichardt packs into that scene: As Oldham goes off on a rambling monologue, London seems shelled off by preoccupation, but a surprising gesture suddenly restores their lost connection, however briefly. In and out in 76 minutes, Old Joy doesn't try for too much, but its subtle victories leave plenty to savor.