Beautiful naturalism belies tension in this coming-of-age (of sorts) drama

Old Joy

on August 25, 2006 by Jay Antani
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For all its gentle rhythms and beautiful scenery, Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy is a rather tense affair, depicting lives and a world either fearing or incapable of coping with change. Reichardt's script, co-written by Jonathan Raymond, follows two friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), who reunite and hit the Oregon back roads on a camping trip. In scene after scene, the friends try to re-forge old bonds, but it's clear that Mark and Kurt's lives are now on such radically different paths as to be unbridgeable.

Mark is married and on the brink of fatherhood while Kurt has remained the restless, feckless wanderer of his youth. Overworked and perhaps domestically depressed, Mark quickly signs on to Kurt's suggestion that they seek out a hot springs out in the remote forest. Both men are, for individual reasons, desperate to relive something of their younger lives, to feel that the joy of youth has not entirely washed away by the tides of adult responsibilities. It's a losing proposition, though, as each realizes that, in their separate ways, neither has much in common with, or much to contribute to, the life of the other.

While the two actors are excellent, Reichardt and Raymond don't provide enough for London to sufficiently develop the perennially sulky Mark. Given how recessive and battened-down he is, it's difficult to believe he and Kurt could ever have been friends at all. The joys of Old Joy lie in its masterful naturalism and in the subtle gestures that express character and demarcate the boundaries between the men. Riechardt effectively summons worlds of discord along the story's margins through the barest means: Cynicism regarding our current war is conveyed through an offhand remark, and disarray in the Democratic Party through the constant squabbling on the car radio. There's much to admire about Old Joy, though it treads that fine line between subtlety and artful ambiguity. Kurt's off-the-wall takes on quantum physics and his recounting of his dreams, for instance, are engaging to take in, as are Mark's pity attempts at camaraderie. Yet what Old Joy boils down to is but a slight comment on the painful nature of change. It's a worthy attempt at a worthy topic, amounting to not enough. Distributor: Kino
Cast: Daniel London, Will Oldham and Tanya Smith
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenwriters: Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt
Producers: Neil Kopp, Lars Knudsen & Jay Van Hoy and Anish Savjani
Genre: Drama
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 76 min.
Release Date: September 20, 2006

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