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MOVIE REVIEW

The slow-burning pain of family conflicts

Slow, unadorned, compassionate, and earnest, ''Loggerheads" is a low-fi throwback to the independent films of the 1980s and '90s -- heartland miniatures hewn from plainspoken lives. Writer-director Tim Kirkman has his finger on the pulse of small family tragedies, and the emotions here are so honest that you're willing to overlook the occasional narrative clumsiness. Those seeking irony would best look elsewhere; those seeking resonance and closure could do a lot worse.

Because it tells three apparently unrelated stories occurring in three different years, ''Loggerheads" takes a while to find its sea legs. The central thread unfolds in Kure Beach, N.C., in 1999, where a young drifter named Mark (Kip Pardue) sleeps on the dunes to guard the nests of female loggerhead turtles, ducking the local cops as best he can. In Eden, N.C., in 2000, minister's wife Elizabeth (Tess Harper) peers out the kitchen window at the new neighbors and puts away the pie she has baked as a welcome when she sees they're two men. In the mountain city of Asheville, N.C., in 2001, the fragile, 40-something Grace (Bonnie Hunt) looks at boys in their early 20s with undisguised longing; like Bill Murray in ''Broken Flowers," she sees the son she gave away everywhere.

Kirkman slowly weaves these stories together, maintaining a pace as contemplative and measured as incoming waves. The title refers to family battles as well as sea turtles, obviously -- to the ingrained human fear that keeps us from loving each other as we should -- but any screaming matches are in the past. ''Loggerheads" is about the aftermath of emotional damage and the possibility of reconciliation. Mark, Elizabeth, and Grace are all perched on the fence; it's those around them who have to push them one way or the other.

So Mark finds friendship with local motel operator George (Michael Kelly), a gay man who, unlike him, has found peace in a small town. Elizabeth gathers up the strength to stand up to her husband (Chris Sarandon), a preacher who's quite reasonable in his dogma, while Grace has to confront her mother (Michael Learned), who wants only to protect her middle-age baby from probing old wounds. ''It's not about a want," retorts the daughter, ''it's about a need."

That the gifted Hunt can get away with uttering such emotional boilerplate is a mark of what ''Loggerheads" does well -- allow its cast to patiently explore life's quiet aches. Harper's return to the screen is especially welcome; where once she played the middle American spitfires of ''Tender Mercies" and ''Crimes of the Heart," now she's playing their mothers: hesitant, proper, given to little rebellions. Elizabeth's a secret smoker, and where there's smoke, there's fire.

The film is weakest in the Kure Beach segments, not least because Kelly and Pardue have the sleek looks of catalog models. Kelly overcomes his handsomeness to create a touching, grounded character though, and Pardue (''Thirteen") does what he can with his slender talents. It helps that ''Loggerheads" is less about Mark than how other people feel about him.

If the film's three-pronged structure is initially confusing, the filmmaker pulls it together with care and a lot of Patty Griffin songs on the soundtrack. ''Loggerheads" has a homemade feel that's fitting for a movie obsessed with the ways we leave the nest and slowly, fretfully circle back.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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