If particular films each have an equivalent genre in literature, Alma Har’el’s documentary “LoveTrue” comes closest to poetry. While standard nonfiction movies often hew nearer to journalistic prose, “LoveTrue” is surreal and searching in its approach to its three human subjects and the thematic one found in its title. It infuses each narrative with a dreamlike feeling, with an electronica score from Flying Lotus, gorgeous visuals shot by Har’el and acted-out psychodramas that send their participants into both their own past and future. Rather than simply observing her subjects or getting talking-head interviews with them, Har’el asks her participants to engage in reenactments of their own lives. This both gives the audience a deeper insight into their history and their present, as well as offering them a way to better understand themselves. They interact with younger and older versions of themselves and those they love, played by non-professional actors who appear both in character and as the people they really are. This approach takes “LoveTrue” out of the realm of pure documentary and gives it a metafictional layer not often present in the genre.
With that in mind, watching “LoveTrue” takes some time to bring you onto its odd, warm wavelength. The film begins with a reading of wedding-ceremony standard 1 Corinthians 13, the Bible’s love chapter, as it flashes through a montage of its subjects. Then, it introduces its Alaskan story, centering on Blake, who shares her struggles as a lonely child and in her current romance as a young woman with the physically fragile Joel. Next, we meet Coconut Willie in Hawaii, a teenage surfer with a devoted love for his young son. Finally, we travel to New York, where teenager Victory and her family make a living singing on the streets of the city. The film spends time with each storyline before it switches to another locale. Each new visit reveals another layer about the people there: We see how Blake’s work as a stripper affects her and her relationships, the truth behind Willie’s relationship with his son’s mother, and the complex reasons why Victory’s mother left her husband and seven children. The reenactments, which are based in the psychotherapy tradition and shot to look like home movies, offer additional insight into Blake, Willie and Victory and their lives.
While Har’el’s previous doc “Bombay Beach” was tied together by location — the ghost-town-like Salton Sea in California — the threads here are united by love in all its stages and forms: parental, filial, romantic, lost and self. Additional elements in each story connect with the others, transitioning nicely from Blake’s narrative to Willie’s to Victory’s and back again. Each of the three threads aren’t quite what they appear when first introduced, but Willie is the most transformed. At first, he seems like a typical stoner surfer who spends his days on his board and gathering coconuts, sporting salt-soaked hair and a careless way of speaking. But when he’s in the presence of his son, he’s changed and challenged as he shows an entirely different person than the one we’ve been spending time with.
Har’el’s affection for her subjects is clear, though she’s unafraid to show them in a honest light that illuminates what makes them flawed, fascinating human beings. She has also worked as a music-video director, and “LoveTrue” has a lyrical quality that few documentaries possess. Shia LaBeouf, who has recently worked more in performance art than traditional film, serves as the movie’s executive producer and financier. It’s easy to see how the movie’s emphasis on psychodrama and its unique visual style might have appealed to the actor at this stage in his career.
Though “LoveTrue” focuses on the titular emotion, it sometimes struggles to connect with its audience on a deeper level. The thread about Victory and her family lacks the clearer center the other two stories possess, as it shifts between Victory and her father, John. A work-in-progress screened at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, with John as the sole subject at that time. Victory is a compelling character with an angelic voice, but “LoveTrue” engages less with her emotions than it does the relationship between her parents. This causes a lack of balance between the stories, though it may seem silly to request symmetry of a film that doesn’t concern itself with a standard structure.
“LoveTrue” may not appeal to fans of fly-on-the-wall or cinema-vérité documentaries, but Har’el’s unique directorial vision should find other devotees who allow themselves to go with her creative flow. This documentary is less an exercise for the brain than it is one for the heart and soul with its stunning visuals taking over when its narrative can’t quite reach its aims. [B]