A review of a love song, with Dale Dickey and Wes Studi
A love song opens with images of small, colorful flowers emerging from the hard, dried and cracked earth. It’s an obvious metaphor: there’s beauty beneath weathered facades, like the face of Faye (Dale Dickey), a lonely woman living in an RV with what looks like the mountain Paramount Pictures . Faye catches crawfish in the lake, surviving on them and coffee. She identifies the songs of birds. She listens to bluegrass on a crackling analog radio. She repairs her own binoculars. And she waits. Someone will meet her here, maybe. She won’t move until he does, but she has no idea when that might be.
For a while, writer-director Max Walker-Silverman reveled in the minimalism of her routine. It’s a simple life, interrupted from time to time by eccentrics from other campsites, including the young girl leading four men in cowboy hats to dig up her grandfather because his burial place no longer offers panoramic view. If Walker-Silverman wanted it to be his nomadlanda scenic look at the harshness and beauty of life without walls, it could probably succeed in that direction, but it has something else in mind, as the title suggests.
Eventually his expected guest shows up, shortly before the announcement that he is on his way. It’s Lito (Wes Studi) and his big, friendly black dog. He and Faye barely recognize each other after decades apart, childhood friends now widowed. So what comes next?
Needless to say, Dickey and Studi are a few decades older and covered in a few more wrinkles than the young, immaculate love objects of so many Hollywood love stories. Time brings a degree of seriousness by default, but the two play out their initial interactions as charming, awkward teenagers, dancing around the real subject at hand with small talk. They play the guitar. They fill ice cream cones using a pocket knife. Slowly the years and layers recede, as they and we see the ageless souls beneath the worn faces.
Walker-Silverman himself is considerably younger than his stars, but was inspired by classic love songs referencing older loves. However, it also doesn’t make the mistake of putting older romances on a pedestal; for Faye and Lito, their courtship can be just as troublesome as for their younger counterparts, with just as many potential rewards. Neither consider this potentially their last rodeo, although we know it could be. Then again, no one knows how long they have, and the world is changing. A throwaway line about how the lake has slowly dried up over the years signifies both the possible fate of climate change and the inevitable “drying up” of our lives as we progress.
It’s a bit of a disappointment to find out there’s a 14-year gap between Dickey’s and Studi’s actual ages, since Faye and Lito are presumably close to the same age. A love song certainly seems to upend romantic Hollywood clichés, but seems to reinforce one about gender-based age gaps in casting. And yet their pairing works, at least in a small part because the elder Studi had a career as physically fit action heroes and villains, and the young Dickey one of the tough characters who got beat up by the world.
Studi has also made such a career playing variations of “The Stoic Indian” that it’s a pleasure to see him choose not for what he can play instead of who he is. He’s probably one of the last actors who comes to mind to act awkwardly, but he does it skillfully. Likewise, Dickey, who has dental issues, is rarely called upon to play beauty, but she lets you see it. Most working actors, of course, are more complex than their usual types, but it’s a joy to see these two veterans manage to show it.
Alfonso Herrera Salcedo’s cinematography looks like the film’s third star – anyone can point a camera at two tall actors with memorable faces, but Salcedo’s compositions and his gaze on the natural surroundings create artistic whimsical scenes with the bare necessities. Campsite does a lot of the art direction, but it’s thanks to production designer Juliana Barreto Barreto for this camper van interior, with its off-yellow tones and wood paneling resembling the visually manifested smell of secondhand smoke and 80s.
Studi won an honorary Oscar in 2019; it’s suitably ironic that only now is he getting the kind of role that could earn him a nomination for real. Dickey, who received an Independent Spirit award for winter bone, should have a real shot at winning nominations this time around — in some scenes, she stands so still that only her eyes do the work, telling a silent story of years past. On the surface, there’s nothing simpler than a story of two people trying to make a connection. Emotionally, however, few things are more complicated. Like life, A love song does not offer easy conclusions, just simple realizations. In expert hands, that’s enough.