By Greg Carlson
19 February 2021
Filmmaker Sabrina Doyle’s “Lorelei” aims for hardscrabble, working-class romance. Good onscreen chemistry between Jena Malone and Pablo Schreiber lifts the filmmaker’s debut feature out of traps set by occasionally mundane dialogue and predictable complications. Tonal and stylistic swings trade off between grim realism and dreamy expressionism. Savvy viewers will be able to say they’ve seen most of this world before -- in stronger, more resonant packages -- but the commitment of the lead performers sustains “Lorelei” in a way that earns solid audience support and respect all the way to the final frames.
Despite Malone’s higher profile, the movie’s point of view belongs to Schreiber’s prison parolee Wayland Beckett, a motorcycle gang member newly released following a fifteen-year stretch for armed robbery. Doyle sketches her blue collar Pacific Northwest milieu in a confident first act. The most effective scenes in the film follow Wayland as he reconnects with Malone’s Dolores, cautiously at first and then as headlong as a freight train. The out-of-sight but not out-of-mind high school sweetheart has enough economic struggles of her own and is hardly in position to help her ex. But in a blink, Wayland leaves his post-incarceration church shelter to move in with Dolores and her three kids.
Schreiber’s imposing physicality masks Wayland’s softheartedness if not his desire to avoid being placed behind bars again. That Zenlike calm, however, must be tested by conflicts and setbacks. As a screen type, Wayland belongs to a tradition of tender toughs yearning to make good while transitioning to life on the outside. Schreiber makes Wayland his own, but his character is a cinematic sibling to the kind of men brought to life by Matthias Schoenaerts in “Rust and Bone” and “The Mustang.” And even though Doyle does not intend to directly interrogate the prison system, hints of “American Me” and “American History X” accompany Wayland’s reform journey.
Despite devoting more space to Wayland, Doyle takes advantage of Malone’s gifts for conveying flinty determination. The performer is particularly good at balancing on the tightrope between impulsiveness and responsibility. Dolores deferred her dreams of competitive swimming when it turned out life had other plans for her. Doyle and Malone collaborate to imagine someone whose frustrations and bitterness threaten to boil over, but we always see just enough thoughtfulness and concern to understand that Dolores does the best she can -- until she can’t.
Doyle leans in to a handful of cute touches. Wayland’s primary mode of transportation is a battered ice cream truck. Multiple aquatic motifs and links to the mythical siren of the film’s title culminate in a memorable family reunion. But for every blunt or clumsy choice, the filmmaker responds with an equal number of subtler grace notes. Like so many recent movies, “Lorelei” had to contend with pandemic-related changes. A planned world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival evaporated when the event was postponed. Despite that disappointment, “Lorelei” continues to work its way through film festivals to what will hopefully be some kind of wider availability down the road. Even if it stays under the radar, it is a movie worth seeking out.
“Lorelei” is an official selection in the narrative feature category of the 2021 Fargo Film Festival, and will be available to screen as part of the virtual event from March 18 to 28.
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