Sundance 2022: A Love Song, After Yang And The Grammar Of Grief, Film Companion

Over the last few years, I’ve nurtured an unnatural obsession with stories about grief. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because I’m a 35-year-old man who hasn’t really experienced true grief so far. I’ve only learned about loss – and the feelings that accompany it – through movies and books. The maximum I’ve mourned is for the end of a relationship or four. I tried to grieve when each of my grandparents passed away. But the tears just did not come. I was close to them early in life, but most of us grow up and grow out of grandparent attachments; they were already memories to me by the time they died. So I suppose my obsession is a way of seeking a blueprint for grief: I want to be ready when it eventually does come. I know that sounds silly and futile. It’s like studying theory to “pass” an upcoming practical exam. But the one crucial truth that stories have taught me is that there is no single grammar of grief. Loss is universal, but grief is personal. There are no right or wrong ways to deal with it. 

Three disparate but distinctly tender films at Sundance 2021 speak to this truth. They suggest that grief is about losing yourself only until you find yourself. The first one, Max Walker-Silverman’s A Love Song, features two childhood sweethearts meeting after decades with great hope. It starts out as just that: a love story for the ages. Faye, a middle-aged woman, lives in her camper at a lake by the mountains. Every time she hears a car approach, she smoothes her clothes and wears an expectant smile – she tells passers that she is waiting for a childhood sweetheart, a man named Lito. She barely remembers what he looks like. It sounds too good, too surreal and sad, to be true. 

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When he does arrive, they spend a day boating, talking and eating – the kind of meeting we often dream of with the ‘ones that got away’. At first, the film feels impossibly romantic: the story of two people who perhaps promised to unite in the twilight so that their love remains undiluted by the formalities of life. In doing so, maybe they turned their entire life into one long moment of breathless anticipation. Maybe they were finally independent, free of family and expectations, to take that plunge today.

But as A Love Song progresses, it expands into a shapeless feeling of loss. We start to notice the details we didn’t want to. Like the way Faye wakes up on her bed every morning: leaving one side empty, her hand conditioned to make space for a companion. Or the way she blurts out the name of a bird she hears before opening her eyes – a habit that’s not hers but one she seems to have embraced. Or even the way she sits on her bench for lunch, slightly towards a corner, almost willing the space next to her to fill up on its own. The film slowly reveals that Faye is in fact a widow, and Lito a widower, and this little meeting of theirs is less of a fantasy and more of a last-ditch attempt to get over their late partners. To re-feel the stuff that love songs are made of. And to reignite their spark for living. No matter what angle we look at it from, the story is irrevocably poignant. Fern in Nomadland – Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning turn as a nomadic American widow – is probably what Faye is afraid to become. While Fern resents the small-town existence her love had once trapped her in, Faye is not breaking out so much as breaking in. Her transition is from loneliness to solitude: from a widow to a woman who realizes that any song can be a love song. 

Dale Dickey, a long-time character actress who’s been relegated to the shadows of White Trash environments, is as haunting as McDormand here. She has a face marked by time and tide, with profoundly deep wrinkles that make her the perfect surrogate for a person out to reclaim her story in western wilderness. It’s a performance of chaos and disquietude, weather and wonder at once – and one that will forever reveal the intersection between grief and enlightenment. 

Also Read: Sundance 2022: When You Finish Saving The World Is A Bitter And Brave Debut

Sophie Hyde’s Good Luck To You, Leo Grande isn’t about grief per se. It’s a disarming dramedy about sexual awakening, body positivity and female pleasure. Emma Thompson’s character in it, Nancy, is a retired religious-ed teacher who – after losing her husband of 30 years – wants to have good sex. She rents an anonymous hotel room, hires a young and charismatic sex worker named Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack) and makes a list of things she wants to try. Needless to say, they forge an unlikely connection that also features nerves, conversations and honest confessions. The film features four meetings between the two and, among other resolutions, 50-something Nancy’s sexual “coming” of age. 

Good looks often come in the way of good performances, but McCormack’s impossibly handsome appearance is supposed to do exactly that – Nancy, as well as the audience, does not expect him to convey the sort of confidence and depth he does. He has a bit of Rami Malek’s soulfulness, and the film is much richer for that. But it’s Emma Thompson’s beautifully layered turn so late in her career that stems from the truth of Nancy grieving the life she’s led and not the man she lost. A part of her died while she was married and parenting. Nancy probably loved her husband, but somewhere along the way, she lost faith in the woman she was expected to be. Her experience with Leo is the bittersweet culmination of her regret and at once the belated rebirth of her body. She has never had an orgasm in her life, and after two years of grieving the wife she once was, Nancy is encouraged by Leo to change the way she views herself. 

One has rarely imagined Thompson as a vulnerable and sexually curious character, yet she wears her physicality as though it were a voice she’s in search of. She normalizes a lot more than menopausal desire through this deceptively difficult role. The film stays grounded and funny, and like A Love Song, conveys a history of decay without a single flashback or narrative crutch. Words and moments do the heavy-lifting, and Thompson even turns Nancy’s shallow breathing into a medium of expression and personality. 

Also Read: Sundance 2022: Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes Is A Stone-Cold Masterpiece

The third and final film uses flashbacks to resounding effect. A muted sense of grief pervades through the moments of After Yang, Kogonada’s meditative science-fiction drama about a family coming to terms with the demise of their artificially intelligent android. Yang, a Chinese robot purchased by Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) as a sibling to their adopted daughter, stops functioning one day. Jake visits illegal dealers and tech museum curators to get Yang fixed, but all in vain. He soon discovers that, along with being his daughter’s brother, Yang was recording memories all along. Jake accesses these memories – scattered little fragments of their family life – to remember the person he once was and contemplate the man he’s become. He sees what they looked like from different perspectives, reliving the emotions that often get sacrificed at the altar of evolution. 

The loss of Yang reveals itself across the film, as does the loss of time itself. Jake sees shards of their life through the eyes of a machine that – for a change – reminds a human of how it feels to be human. Jake and Kyra reflect on their own autopilot existence, with Yang’s fading heart gently pumping new blood through their bodies. At one point, Jake accesses a thoughtful conversation he had with Yang about his love for tea, in the process rekindling a passion to run his tea store. 

Kogonada doesn’t focus on the futuristic setting so much as the timelessness of love – and loss. Yang’s memories also reminded me of the stray flashes I have of my own childhood. Most of them feature my grandparents: my summers with them, the tents we built on the balcony, the food we cooked together, and the vacuum cleaner I rode through rooms that smelled like dry fruits and cotton. When I’m idle, I often flit through those little capsules of time – reflecting on the child I was, and whether I would take the same decisions if I had to grow up all over again. It’s strange, but I miss those times and don’t miss them at once. I’m so used to missing the people from that time that I seldom realize I do. I meet them in my dreams and forget them when I’m awake. Perhaps this, too, is a type of grief. It’s not a movie, but it’s mine. 

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