With characters playing variations on real people as they discuss their lives, and voiceover narration transforming into lyrical subtitles, Alma Ha’rel’s “LoveTrue” is anything but a typical documentary. At the same time, the movie’s free-flowing portrait of three people who endure life-changing shifts takes a stab at a different kind of authenticity. Designed to tackle the notion of “true love” by turning it inside out, the movie explores the experience of being caught in transition. While not always successful, “LoveTrue” is such an original gamble that — like the baffling stabs at performance art by executive producer Shia LaBeouf – it offers certain rewards for anyone willing to engage with its curious intentions.
Ha’rel’s interplay of fact and fiction should come as no surprise to viewers familiar with “Bombay Beach,” the director’s 2011 debut. While that project focused on a handful of alienated characters in a single isolated location, “LoveTrue” casts a much wider net. Opening in rural Alaska, it quickly shifts to Hawaii and New York before doubling back and overlapping each mini-story until it lands on an interchangeable set of psychological states.
Intercut with expressionistic psychodramas, including non-actors playing variations of the main subjects’ past and future, “LoveTrue” sometimes goes too far in its attempts to evoke a profound sense of longing. But it compensates with the filmmaker’s eye for spectacular visuals, all united through a vibrant score by Flying Lotus, which constantly fluctuates from playful to somber and back again.
The film’s meditative structure kicks off with the unique pairing of young Alaskan couple Blake and Joel, who suffers from a disease that weakens his bones. While Blake works nights as a stripper, she enjoys domestic bliss with the easygoing Joel, and Ha’rel’s camera watches them giggle through intimate moments — until sudden change in temperament complicates their dynamic. These gentler scenes contrast with Blake’s late night endeavors at her neon-colored workplace, where she bonds with a middle-aged dancer at a radically different stage of her life. To emphasize Blake’s fear of her next steps in life, Ha’rel dresses Blake’s colleague in a t-shirt labeled “Older Blake,” a recurring device throughout the film. While heavy-handed, it works well enough in the context of movie’s loose poetic style.
The tone shifts in the Hawaii segments, where Ha’rel turns to a fun-loving surfer in the midst of the revelation that his two-year-old son was the product of his wife’s affair. Coping with a breakup, he turns to a hard-partying routine with his buddies, discovering the magic of online dating and burying his sorrows in booze. Once again, Ha’rel’s camera gets so close to her subject’s disoriented mental state that the movie takes on a voyeuristic quality, digging into the texture of her characters’ lives.
That approach is rounded out by third subject Victory, the estranged child in a family of singers who make a living performing around New York City. Threading striking footage of their performances with Victory’s meditations on her neglectful father, this segment introduces a musicality to the narrative that ultimately draws all three strands together. Blending classic cinema verite with dreamlike tangents, Ha’rel captures an underlying delicacy in the most uncomfortable moments. As the movie’s sole African American subject, Victory prevents “LoveTrue” from looking like a showcase of white people problems, and instead opens it up to a more sweeping portrait of emotions.
Ha’rel’s playful formalism never settles down. Recurring segments follow various subjects reflecting on their lives, as onscreen text highlights their words; often, the text continues while the voiceover fades away. It’s a striking device that effectively poeticizes their rambling declarations. The filmmaker is just as capable of landing on intriguing images, from the sight of a high-heeled woman crossing a creek to a spellbinding shot of Will holding flowers to an unseen target just outside the frame. These elegant moments are paired with frank discussions about sex, abandonment, and heartbreak, which don’t always arrive at poignant conclusions but certainly speak to the movie’s larger themes.
“LoveTrue” often plays like an experiment rather than a fully-realized cinematic achievement. Much like LaBeouf’s attention-grabbing stunts, much of the movie has the air of a high-concept gimmick. Aside from a regrettable concluding montage that draws blunt parallels between the three strands, the cosmic scope never fully connects into a satisfying whole.
Nevertheless, its disconnected qualities aptly reflect the slippery existential terrain each subject tries to navigate. Four years after “Bombay Beach,” Ha’rel’s unique vision holds tremendous value for the craft of non-fiction filmmaking, which so often suffers from formulaic approaches. Rather than adhering to familiar rhythms, “LoveTrue” invents its own.
“LoveTrue” premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.