Loving a movie is easy. Telling people you love a movie is not, particularly one as finely honed and delicate as Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy." Love it too much and people will wonder, "Where's the fire?" Love it too little, and they'll shrug. But because we're talking about a true American independent film, much of which consists of two men in a car, love has to be part of the sale.
Reichardt also happens to be a natural, cinematic filmmaker of a classic minimalist vintage. Her appreciation for both the discreet passage of time and silences, uncomfortable and understandable alike, feels unique in a cultural climate of over stimulation and noise. "You can't really get quiet anymore," remarks Kurt (the musician Will Oldham), one of the film's two main characters, as though the company that made it had gone out of business. Kurt takes a road trip with his old buddy, Mark (Daniel London), from Portland, Ore., to a hot spring in the Cascade Mountains, in Mark's old Volvo, with Kurt's dog. They're somewhere in their 30s now, and it's been some years since their friendship's salad days.
As their weekend progresses, the trip begins to seem like a last-ditch effort to reconnect. But the intervening years have left them estranged and at philosophical odds. Kurt is an itinerant hippie who appears to live mostly out of his van. The hair that refuses to grow on his balding head is apparent on his face in an enormous blond bead. Mark is thin and serious and earnestly liberal (Air America is radio station of choice), and he's on the verge of fatherhood, a life choice his buddy might describe as far-out. Much of the time Mark spends driving himself and Kurt to the mountains involves listening to him wax utopian about string theory ("The universe is falling") and wistful for their old bond. Kurt wants to heal the awkwardness between them, but Mark insists everything is fine, even though his tense body language and taciturnity tell the opposite story.
The beauty of Reichardt's film is that it's not about a specific incident or argument. There are no revelations of hurt feelings, although from Kurt you sense a longing for fraternal closeness that lies somewhere between the homoerotic and modern "bro-mance." Yet these men have become different in ways that have left a permanent rift in their friendship.
At 74 minutes, "Old Joy" is a partial elegy for a way of life a universe away from a downtown movie theater. But in a dolorous fashion, Reichardt and her co-writer, Jonathan Raymond, who also came up with the story, argue that the past is the past. The movie explores the increasingly coarse line between nostalgia and acceptance for the way things are, without exclamatory revelation and uproarious self-pity. It's "Sideways" for realists. And like "Sideways," a woman -- Mark's pregnant girlfriend -- is the most reasonable person in "Old Joy."
That tension between the nostalgic and the pragmatic extends to Reichardt's filmmaking. Its attention to mood and character rather than action evokes the American independent filmmaking of the late 1960s and '70s. Working with the cinematographer Justine Kurland, Reichardt renders the passing time of the car ride as a series of highway vistas from the passenger seat and through the windshield. It's nothing more than sky and farmhouses and treetops and lumber yards, but they make a shrewd, serene alternative to the quiet deterioration happening not only in the car but in both the ecology and the liberal body politic.
Kurt and Mark's trip to those hot springs is a figurative return to Eden. Anyone who's had a disillusioning reunion with a moony old friend knows what Mark discovers: They're too old to stay that innocent. None of this hit me until after the movie ended. But it hit me hard: You can't go home again.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.