Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Loving (2016)

Filmmaker Jeff Nichols has been flirting with the Academy Awards for a while now. His second and third films, “Take Shelter” and “Mud,” received plenty of critical praise, scooping up numerous awards along the way. Despite some ace campaigning, neither movie caught Oscar's attention. With his fifth feature, Nichols has finally broke through with the Academy. And all it took was a movie about an inspiring historical event. “Loving” tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who fought for their right to marry all the way to the Supreme Court. Even then, Nichols' film only received one nomination, in the Best Actress category for Ruth Negga. I'm sure Nichols will get a Best Director Oscar some day. It's just going to take a while.

The place is Caroline, a county in southern Virginia. The time is 1958. Richard Loving, a simple bricklayer, is in love with Mildred Jeter. When Mildred becomes pregnant, they plan to marry. There's only one problem. Richard is white, Mildred is black, and interracial marriage is illegal in Virginia. The couple try to avoid detection, driving to D.C. to marry, but eventually the local cops become aware of the union. They threaten the two with jail time, forcing them to move out of state. When Mildred is ready to have her baby, they sneak back into Virginia, getting them both thrown in jail. After she writes a letter to Robert Kennedy, the case is brought to the attention of the ACLU. The lawyers take the Loving's case, fighting in Washington for a historical ruling.

It's fitting that history gifted the Loving's with such a perfect last name, isn't it? “Loving” is indeed a love story. Richard and Mildred trade meaningful glances. Their arms encircle, their faces draw close. He builds a house for her. He comes home late at night and whispers to her how much he cares. The most meaningful moments tend to be the most quiet. In a moment captured by Time Magazine, Richard reclines in Mildred's lap while they watch TV. It's a muted, low key love story without big scenes of explosive emotions. In the quote that concludes the film, Mildred says Richard “took care of her.” It's an incredibly sweet, genuine romance, brought to life by the small moments that pass through life.

Honestly, “Loving” might come off as too quiet if it wasn't for the two leads. Joel Edgerton – who I have to constantly remind myself is not the same person as Joel Kinnamen – is Richard Loving. He plays the part as incredibly stoic, with Edgerton having few lines of dialogue. Yet his feelings are conveyed in terse looks and quick action. When a car approaches the house, he yells at his kids to hide, fearful of who might be inside. When Mildred is interviewed by a reporter, he quietly attempts to call off the interview, fearful of the attention it might draw to them. Probably Edgerton's best moment is when he instructs a lawyer to tell the Supreme Court, simply, that he loves his wife. The nominated Ruth Negga plays Mildred as more emotive but no less considered. She's a woman who has lived her whole life being careful with her words. Both performances are very good, rooting “Loving” in sincerity.

In fact, that sense of low key earnestness is what characterizes most of “Loving.” That quiet, thoughtful atmosphere makes the more dramatic moments hit harder. Nichols shoots the sequence of the couple sneaking back into Virginia like a thriller, the moment as tense as any bank heist. While at work, Richard spots a brick, wrapped in the newspaper story about his wife, in the seat of his truck. Driving home, he becomes paranoid about a vehicle closely following him, a sequence that generates unease in the viewer. Nichols, in an interesting move, cuts between Richard dropping a brick at work and one of the Loving kids being struck by a car. (He was okay, by the way.) Nichols doesn't draw a lot of attention to the racial aggression the couple faced, assuming history speaks for itself. When the topic does come up, it's handled in a mature, realistic way.

It wouldn't surprise me if “Loving” proved too laconic for the Academy. They usually like their emotions to be Big and acted to the ceiling. “Loving” is a simple story, of a couple who loved each other so much they were willing to put everything on the line for it. Jeff Nichols tells the story without too much dramatic reinvention or manufactured tension. The result, a movie about real life that actually feels like real life, is surprisingly effective. (By the way, Nichols' good luck charm, Michael Shannon, is brilliantly cast against type in a small role as the nerdy magazine photographer.) [7/10]

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