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Middleburg Finale: "Loving" & "La La Land"

Lynn Lee here stepping in for Nathaniel, on his way back to NYC, for the final day of the Middleburg Film Festival which was Sunday. As a D.C. area resident, I’ve been observing the rising profile of this local-ish film festival over the past few years with great interest.  Festival founder Sheila Johnson seems bent on making Middleburg a lower-altitude Telluride of the East, and she certainly has the Hollywood heavy-hitter connections to do it!  This year’s lineup was easily the most impressive so far in the festival’s short history; it’s as if the program was constructed specifically to highlight likely Oscar contenders.

The Lovings in the beloved Virginia.

In both that ambition and its picturesque Virginia setting, there was no more fitting film to cap the festival than Loving...

Jeff Nichols’ portrait of Mildred and Richard Loving (Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton), the interracial couple who famously challenged Virginia’s miscegenation law and won, securing a landmark Supreme Court decision that recognized the constitutional right to marry outside of one’s race.  If you’re expecting a rousing movie about the triumph of civil rights in the halls of justice, guess again.  Loving largely avoids big emotional gestures and makes the deliberate choice to show us almost nothing of the courtroom proceedings beyond the couple’s arraignments before the trial judge.  That’s because, true to its title, the film is much more about the Lovings than about Loving v. Virginia.

It’s an interesting approach, and I admired Nichols’ avoidance of the typical Hollywood dramatic beats.  Yet I found myself wishing the movie had shown a little more of how Richard and Mildred met and fell in love, and how their families had accepted their relationship, deep in the heart of a rural Virginia community of the late 1950s.  Even as we watch them get married, raise children and try to preserve a semblance of normalcy even while defying the laws of their home state, we can only guess at their private feelings, which they rarely display openly or talk about much.

That’s not to knock Negga or Edgerton, who are both quite good at suggesting what moves their characters.  Negga in particular has wonderfully expressive eyes and a subtle body language that lets us see the resolution beneath her gentle exterior, as Mildred evolves from seemingly passive victim to the driving force behind the couple’s quest for justice.  It’s telling that some of her most powerful scenes involve receiving telephone calls to which she barely says a word in response.  Edgerton in some ways has the harder role as the stoic bricklayer who’s much more ambivalent about being thrust into the public spotlight.  His conflict plays off nicely against Mildred’s quiet certainty, sometimes to comical effect.  Yet despite moments of insight and affecting tenderness, I still came away feeling like I didn’t really know the Lovings, for all the movie’s efforts to acquaint me with them.

Grade: B
Oscar chances?  Yes, most likely for Picture and Actress; although both are quieter and more restrained than Oscar typically goes for.  Still, the subject matter should boost the film's chances.

After Loving, I rushed off to see back-to-back screenings of Manchester by the Sea and La La Land. One thing that struck me about seeing these three movies in succession was how vividly each one evoked a distinct sense of place, from the woods and fields of the Virginia countryside to the spare beauty of a New England coastal town to the incredibly varied landscape of Los Angeles, ranging between dramatic hills, studio lots, and ramshackle piers, all of course connected by rivers of traffic.  As someone who's lived in or near all three areas of the country, I really enjoyed seeing them all shown to such great effect.

I liked but didn't love Manchester by the Sea, which we’ve covered in some depth already.  Kenneth Lonergan’s greatest strength has always been his ability to probe compassionately into the messy, complicated mix of feelings underpinning the ties that bind, and to translate that insight into dialogue that sounds like actual human conversation.  That ability's on full display in Manchester, and anchored by strong performances across the board.  But the movie feels like it could have been tighter (though it’s not nearly as baggy as Margaret), as Casey Affleck’s protagonist goes through perhaps one self-destructive cycle too many, without the benefit of a true catharsis.  That’s par for the course for Lonergan, though: he doesn’t really do tidy emotional closures, no doubt because life so seldom provides them.  Grade: B+

As for La La Land, add me to its fan club.  Sure, I had a few reservations, but they sound like a nutritionist’s warnings about a box of candy: irrelevant to the purpose of candy.  Because that’s what this is, a delightful Technicolored bonbon with a core of bittersweet melancholy that seems lifted directly from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.  (Damien Chazelle has acknowledged the latter was one of the film’s key inspirations.)  It’s not perfect; at times it feels like it’s trying a bit too hard, or borrowing a bit too greedily from its myriad influences, to create that sense of classic Hollywood magic.  And while it draws a sharp picture of the frustrations of trying to make it in the “industry,” it ends up floating a gauzy fantasy version of what success looks like in that world.  I suspect that’s intended, yet it reinforces a nagging sense that the whole thing may be, well, a bit insubstantial.  That said, it’s just about impossible to resist the film’s charms if you love L.A., musicals, jazz, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, and/or Emma Stone in breezy jewel-tone dresses, each one more exquisite than the last.  It’s a valentine to all these things, and to the romantic dreamer in all of us—the chastened dreamer perhaps most of all.  Here’s to the ones who dream, indeed.  Grade: B+/A-

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Reader Comments (2)

Agreed on nearly every word on LOVING. I was really impressed with Negga despite a character that seems barely written at all on the page.

October 24, 2016 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Given the weak actor line up, I think that a nomination for Edgerton is much more likely than for Negga.

October 25, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

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