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There's Timeless Power in Lovesong's Gentle Story About Love Between Women

There's Timeless Power in Lovesong's Gentle Story About Love Between Women


Director So Yong Kim's indie feature stars Riley Keough and Jena Malone as women whose abiding love blurs the lines of friendship. And it's both timeless and very much of the moment. 

In the midst of a political climate that has Facebook and Twitter feeds jam-packed with stalwart opinions and angry rejoinders comes Lovesong, a gentle, lyrical film about enduring love between women that surpasses friendship and defies boundaries of sexual identity. Despite the film's elliptical, timeless tone and its natural eschewing of current affairs, its narrative of sexual and emotional fluidity is deeply rooted in the moment, or maybe even the future. At least, that's how its thoughtful stars Jena Malone and Riley Keough hope it's viewed.

The fourth feature from writer-director So Yong Kim, Lovesong is nominated for this year's John Cassavetes Independent Spirit Award for a feature that comes in under a budget $500,000. Kim produced and cowrote the film with her husband, Bradley Rust Gray, who directed Keough in the queer-themed werewolf indie Jack and Diane in 2012. Kim and Gray, have known both Malone, 32, and Keough, 27, for years, which provided a shortcut to getting the film made.

Shot in two parts, the film's first section begins with Sarah (Keough), who's essentially raising her toddler (Jessie Ok Gray) alone while she rides out an unfulfilling marriage with a husband wedded primarily to his work. Even as Keough's Sarah lovingly cares for and plays with her child, glimpses of her intense longing for something -- anything -- crack through. The monotony of her days is broken up when her longtime, free-spirited friend Mindy (Malone) arrives for a visit, and from their first glance at each other, it's clear that their abiding love runs deeper than friendship. Still, following some degree of physical intimacy that the audience is not exactly privy to, they go their separate ways until the film picks up three years later.

When Kim first approached Malone about the film, it wasn't a sure thing that there would be a second piece to it, but when the director called Malone to shoot part 2, she said yes without hesitation, that she trusted her director implicitly, the actress told The Advocate in a phone interview.

"I don't think I finished fully reading part two before I flew to Nashville to shoot it," Malone (the successful child actress who recently played Johanna Mason in three films of the blockbuster Hunger Games franchise) said, adding that her experience making the first section of the film was particularly intimate and inviting. "Part 1 was so sweet and simple and beautiful and soft. ... It was just me and Riley and So [the director], exploring rejection, intimacy, love, and family, and friendship in just such a simple way."

From listening to Malone and Keough discuss making the film with each other and their director, it comes as little surprise that Lovesong's narrative of exploring the emotional depth of a pair of friends is as seamless and natural as any love story ever depicted on screen.

Keough, who is also nominated for an Independent Spirit Award this year for her supporting role in Andrea Arnold's American Honey, has garnered plenty of press for her famous lineage (she is Lisa Marie Presley's daughter), but she's been a force in the indie film world and occasionally in blockbusters (she appeared in Mad Max: Fury Road) since her debut in The Runaways in 2010. Before becoming an independent film star she'd always been drawn to that world, she told The Advocate via phone. And she was particularly fascinated by Malone's work prior to working with her, she said.

"When I was younger, I was obsessed with Jena Malone and that whole generation of acting," Keough said of Malone's work in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Malone appeared in films including Donnie Darko and The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys. "Working opposite her was very surreal to me, just one of those moments that was very personal because I remember being a teenager and watching her, being a fan, and loving her films."

But the admiration and trust they shared during the filming of Lovesong go both ways. Malone was equally praising of her costar.

"Everything she does is intimate. It's such a beautiful thing to watch. But it's not weakness. It's a strength of character," Malone said of Keough's acting style. "It was just a pleasure to kind of get soft and intimate with her. I really appreciate that she allowed me in and I was able to allow her in and we were able to kind of find some soft space to play together."

At this moment in history, when women recently came out by the millions (with allies of every gender) to march for their rights and for the rights of other marginalized people, the gentle storytelling of Lovesong is, in its way, political. The tale, in which the two friends come together in the second half for Mindy's wedding but also to explore the tender aftermath of their boundary-crossing years before has them eventually professing their everlasting affection for each other before ostensibly returning to their mostly separate lives. But it is also a story about women supporting each other through the ebbs and flows of friendship, about the capacity for love in all its forms at a time when identity is often both fully with labels and without them.

"There wasn't the conversation of labeling her with a sexual orientation and I love that," Keough said of her character in the film. "It wasn't brought up in the conversation. And that's where I hope things are headed in the future, where it just is what it is. It's just love."


While the story of Lovesong may leave some viewers hoping for a fully realized happy ending for Sarah and Mindy as a couple, there's a certain satisfaction in their tender regard for one another -- a look of longing from Mindy in the passenger's seat toward Sarah as she drives them on a road trip in the first part of the film, a touch of fingertips, followed by a sweet kiss while tipsy in a bar in the second part. Kim's direction works like lines of poetry, drawing deeper conclusions from wisps of visuals caught lingering at the edges of the frame.

Malone spoke about the trajectory of the on-screen friendship in terms of wish fulfillment. "I love that it's a really simple, beautiful story of unrequited love," she said. "I think that, had they ended up together, yes, the armchair liberal in me would have been standing up on my feet. That's what you want to happen because that's what's happening in the world. People are standing up and saying, 'This is who I love and this is who I am.' But not everyone has the courage to do that."

She elaborated by saying, "Life doesn't always work to our ideals. Life works the way it works and we get by. I appreciate that [Kim] has more of a realistic view of love. But in film, we tend to want it to be the ideal and perfection and the romance, the fantasy. I too want those things. So Yong Kim, she's much more of a realist."

Malone has a unique perspective on owning one's identity, having grown up with two moms. Since she first starred as a child actor in Bastard Out of Carolina (based on the Dorothy Allison novel), which features a lesbian character, Malone's career choices have often skewed queer or queer-adjacent including that early film, Saved, The Neon Demon, and now Lovesong.

"Initially I'd been interested in those kinds of roles because those were my role models [her moms] -- two women who loved each other, and that was completely misunderstood and ridiculed. Ellen wasn't on TV yet," Malone said. "I remember getting beat up in the stairwell because I had two moms and I didn't have anyone to make something for on Father's Day."

She further explained that her experience as a child became "intimately party of my language as an artist to want to speak, not for those people, but to speak with that voice of who is being ridiculed, who is not being understood."

As independent cinema often explores themes that aren't necessarily rewarded or even recognized at the Academy Awards, Keough's indie film canon also skews particularly queer, including projects like Jack and Diane and 2016's The Girlfriend Experience (a TV series based on the Stephen Soderbergh film), in which she played an escort.

Surely, Keough's ability to convey strength in longing in Lovesong will place her on the radar of young queer women who aren't familiar with her work. But since she played queer in Jack and Diane, she's amassed fans grateful for her work in telling relatable stories. The impact that representation can have for young people is not lost on Keough.

"You make movies so that you can make people not feel so alone no matter what the genre is. Particularly, with this kind of thing, there are so many people that I think feel so alone," Keough said, adding that young women had reached out to her via Twitter to express their appreciation. Like Malone's, Keough's desire to be stand up for marginalized people has come in part from personal experience.

"I grew up with friends that were gay and were hiding it," she said. "I could just see that they were struggling and I always tried to make myself available for those people around me when I was younger."

At this divisive time in our history there's great power in a small, gentle film like Lovesong, from a female director nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, starring two young women who've actively sought to represent those whose voices need to be heard, which depicts a story of the resilient, amorphous nature of love that moves beyond sexuality and gender.

Speaking specifically about her character Johanna in the Hunger Games franchise but extrapolating out to the current political climate, Malone discussed power, the kind of power Lovesong ultimately has. "It's not something that you get one day in a box. It's something that you muster up the courage to harness and you create and hold," she said. "But it is imaginary. Power is imaginary. So if you feel like you don't have it, you can get it."

Lovesong is currently in theaters.

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Tracy E. Gilchrist