Credit: Alfonso Herrera Salcedo/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
by Ryan Swen Featured Film Horizon Line

A Love Song — Max Walker-Silverman

July 25, 2022

A Love Song has a rustic, unadorned quality that is easy to appreciate, but its calculated modesty only does so much to distinguish it from the independent cinema landscape.

A Love Song essentially served as the opening night film — or at least the opening-day representative — for Sundance 2022’s NEXT film section, introduced in 2010 and designed as a showcase for more purportedly innovative or formally daring work amid the tacit mainstreamification of the festival as a whole. On one level, it’s not hard to see what might be appealing about this film, directed by Max Walker-Silverman in his feature debut, as a first pick: Set and shot in rural Colorado, it is forthrightly rustic; it has two recognizable actors in the form of Dale Dickey and Wes Studi, something very much lacking elsewhere in the section (unless one counts Something in the Dirt’s Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead), and it tells a pleasingly coherent and emotional story without too much signposting.

But therein lies the question: how little must a film go outside the norm of the independent landscape to qualify as worthy of inclusion in a section like NEXT? It is both a positive and a negative that to say that, in an even somewhat more robust independent scene like the one in 1992, whose twentieth anniversary this year has been feted by the Criterion Channel, a film like this would be seen as the absolute norm, a solid and quiet work whose rhythms are built from little moments and the logical pairing of landscapes and weathered faces with 16mm.

The plot, such as it is, ostensibly revolves around the reunion of two widowers, Faye (Dickey) and Lito (Studi), childhood friends who haven’t seen each other in decades. Faye, who’s been waiting at a campsite in a national park near where they grew up, spends her days eating small lobsters fished with a miniature pot, reading and utilizing Audubon guides to identify birds and constellations, and interacting with some of the fellow campsite denizens, including the mailman, a lesbian couple on the cusp of proposing, and a cowboy-hat-wearing crew of four brothers and one young sister seeking to disinter their dead father buried somewhere around Faye’s trailer.

Much of the true, if somewhat muted charge of A Love Song comes from Faye and Lito’s two days, one night meeting — which begins with charming awkwardness and proceeds, like much of the film, in brief little moments, with the highlight being a guitar and vocal duet. But this is ultimately Faye’s film, as much because she is the center of the film for the 50-some minutes surrounding the encounter as because of what soon becomes an emotionally legible arc. Learning to let go of grief is certainly no novel storyline, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t fully spell it out, but after Lito departs, the emotional signposts on Faye’s literal journey up Mount Elbert only become more obvious.

None of this is to say that A Love Song is a bad film. While its rhythms can feel trite, unwilling to sit with the quietude for too long, the film has an unadorned quality worth appreciating. But the question remains, at least given the context of its presentation: should such a film be considered truly innovative, or simply its own kind of retrenchment or throwback, and what does that communicate about our present-day demands of cinematic art?

Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.