The smartest choice that filmmaker So Yong Kim made when crafting “Lovesong,” an intimate exploration of the fluid nature of friendship, identity and sexual attraction, comes from the cast. Toplined by Jena Malone and Riley Keough, “Lovesong” leans heavily on the pair’s chemistry and ability to carry a slow-simmering storyline, but even their contributions can only carry the thinly-plotted film so far. While “Lovesong” fails to coalesce, Malone and Keough emerge with two of their best performances yet, bolstered by an on-screen bond that deserves far richer material that what is offered up here.
Sarah (Keough) is a stay-at-home mom with a cute kid (played at different ages by Kim’s own cute kids, Jessie Ok Gray and Sky Ok Gray) and a distracted husband (director Cary Fukunaga of season one “True Detective” fame, who appears mostly via downbeat Skype sessions). She years for something more. Sarah’s concerns are all too common, but Keough’s refreshingly unfettered performance keeps them from feeling like clichés. When her estranged best friend Mindy (Malone) suddenly reappears in her life and suggests that the pair head out on a road trip to reconnect, Sarah jumps at the chance to spend some time with her more wild-hearted pal. Sarah is eager to remember what it was like to be young and free (and untethered to the kind of worldly concerns that just keep dragging her down), but the real draw is Mindy — and who can possibly blame her, as Malone is at her most effervescent and appealing.
Kim gives over the majority of the film’s narrative to the girls’ free-wheeling road trip, punctuated with stops to a country carnival and a slew of shabby hotel rooms. The pair have a warm, lived-in chemistry that steadily evolves over the course of the film and is carried by their well-matched talents. The film’s script (penned by Kim and her husband Bradley Rust Gray) is devoid of much in the way of meaningful dialogue, and the bulk of its power comes from what Malone and Keough are able to convey through their physical performances — all longing looks and closely held embraces.
“Lovesong” tracks the strange and wonderful evolution of their friendship over the course of their trip, but just as things begin to heat up — both emotionally and physically — a poorly-designed twist pulls the pair apart. Despite its relatively compact 85-minute runtime, that second act choice scans as a cheap way to move the film along before it really stalls out, a move punctuated by a jarring third act time jump. While the choice to push ahead nearly three years initially feels unearned and horribly rushed, “Lovesong” hits its greatest notes as the film moves towards a heart-crushing conclusion.
Though Keough and Malone excel when it’s just the two of them — and so much of “Lovesong” is just the two of them — the time jump forces them to interact with a slew of new faces, including a dizzyingly out of touch Leif (Ryan Eggold) and the amusingly ditzy Lily (Brooklyn Decker). Keough is at her most raw in these scenes, and as the distance between Sarah and Mindy grows, so too does the film’s emotional resonance. But the overall effect is one of a disjointed love story that can never find the quite tune, no matter how skilled its players.
“Lovesong” opens in limited release on Friday, February 17.