"The Romance of Loneliness," the first feature from longtime collaborators and Memphis moviemakers Sarah Ledbetter and Matteo Servente, is perhaps more a mood piece or cinematic tone poem than a conventional narrative, at least in the form that arrives Friday for a week's run at the Malco Studio on the Square, after a near-sellout preview Wednesday at The Paradiso.
The story of an unconventional young woman (Amy LaVere) uncertain whether her ambivalence about love, family and career is a troubling indicator of weakness or a bold signifier of independence, "The Romance of Loneliness" boasts a large cast of characters and an irresistible supporting performance by veteran New York actress Lynn Cohen, who 15 months from now will be world-famous, thanks to a significant role in the blockbuster sequel, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."
Despite such attention-grabbing elements and an ambitious female-centric script, "The Romance of Loneliness" -- financed entirely by donation -- appears modest onscreen. The defection of actor/blues musician Chris Thomas King and a few other problems created intense challenges during the production, so the film was constructed largely in the editing room by Eileen Meyer and Jenny Myers. The result is barely 60 minutes in length — unusual for a movie today but commonplace in the pre-television era, when such significant films as "The Most Dangerous Game" (1932) and "Detour" (1945) needed only about an hour to tell their memorable, complicated stories.
This economy of storytelling proves to be an asset, as does the appealing, even frequently beautiful digital lensing of the mono-monikered Hutch, a Dallas-based cinematographer. Hutch eschews the documentarian grit of many micro-budgeted films for the compositional elegance of a more traditional independent film: Seeds drift in the Southern air like magical snowflakes, and the shapes and colors of helium balloons offer a striking, factory-made contrast to the natural greens and browns of a leafy West Tennessee rural landscape.
A years-in-the-making "passion project" for Ledbetter and Servente, who previously collaborated on the award-winning 2006 short, "Dammi Il La," shot in Italy and Spain, "The Romance of Loneliness" introduces singer/actress LaVere -- in her first lead role -- as Amanda, a restless young woman who flees her confused and finally fed-up boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) only moments after returning to his arms.
Like her attractive and apparently successful sister (Anna Margaret Hollyman, another of the movie's non-Memphis professional actors), Amanda is "addicted to emotional discomfort." Apparently, she has a history of escaping, copping out and dissembling; "I really need to be by myself right now" is her mantra. When Amanda says she needs to "individuate," her elfin but tough grandmother Mina (Cohen) retorts: "What a terrible word. Why'd you even want to?"
Unmoored, Amanda reluctantly agrees to drive Mina to a farmhouse in the country, for the long-planned wedding of Amanda's cousin, Cristina (Rebekah Brandes), another of Mina's granddaughters. (The actual location is Stanton, in West Tennessee, where much of Craig Brewer's "Black Snake Moan" was shot.)
Performed by a laid-back priest (G.B. Shannon), the wedding is a same-sex union, bringing together Cristina and Julia (Caroline White). Although we're told Mina doesn't quite approve (the grandmother makes a sarcastic reference to living in "the land of the free"), the wedding is presented as a happy, matter-of-fact affair, and not as an excuse for controversy or preachiness. It is followed by dancing, not debate.
Even so, and despite a certain vagueness or elusiveness to the story and Amanda's motivations, the film occasionally is overwritten. "You do not need to find yourself, you need to be yourself," Mina tells Amanda, at a point so early in the film we barely know either character.
Sometimes, visuals say more than words. Amanda's wardrobe tells us she's a bit of a show-off and an exhibitionist, despite her existential Garbo act: Like an overgrown kid, she wears overalls and red rain boots to the wedding. LaVere's natural baby-doll voice adds to the sense of a woman hiding inside a practiced infantilism.
Ledbetter's script is at its best when it's at its most droll. (Ledbetter wrote the film, while she and Servente acted as co-directors.) Most audience members will nod in approval when Mina tells the mopey Amanda: "It's a dirty world. Join the fun." Cohen — who has worked in films directed by Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen — is an impish presence with a marvelously expressive face, and her humorous Mina deserves a movie of her own.
Shot last summer, "The Romance of Loneliness" is the latest production from Memphis-based Paper Moon Films. For the most part, the movie was made by a Memphis cast and crew. Rachel Boulden was the production designer, and the local musical acts who perform during the wedding party and contribute to the soundtrack include Deering and Down and Star & Micey.