I have two things left from my wife, whose suicide in her early 20's ended our relatively brief marriage of one year and also directly led to the end of our newborn daughter's life.
It has been over twenty years since Laura's death, but every few months I still find myself reaching inside the drawer in which both things are tucked away and spending a few moments remembering.
The two things, a pair of her panties and a not so creatively crafted wedding ring made out of the end of a spoon that I swore would be replaced when finances allowed, are all that is left from a lifetime commitment ended far too soon.
Mark Pellington, director of such films as Henry Poole is Here and Arlington Road, has crafted a contemplative, deeply authentic film, an episodic ensemble motion picture less reliant on cohesive narrative than unifying theme with Nostalgia, a Bleecker Street release that opens in Indy on March 2nd at Landmark's Keystone Art Cinema. Working from a script by Alex Ross Perry based upon a story he and Perry developed together, Pellington's Nostalgia is a refreshingly honest look at impermanence and pain and "stuff" and the symbolic "things" we use to define our lives and our memories.
Pellington knows something of grief, his wife having passed away when his daughter was a two-year-old leaving Pellington alone as a single parent. If you know this fact about Pellington, it bathes the film in an extra layer of grief and sadness. While there is a tightly woven layer of sadness resting comfortably within the foundation of Nostalgia, it is, strangely enough, not an immensely sad film.
Nostalgia's opening scene is of an heirloom necklace dangling freely from the neckline of an anonymous waitress in some anonymous diner, the scene playing out in such a way that one is unsure whether we should be nervous, leering or contemplative. John Ortiz is an insurance assessor whose mention of the seemingly obscure item wrapped around an attractive, friendly waitress serves as more than a little bit of an indicator that he spends much of his life in a world where "stuff" is of more signifance than the people with the stuff. We will follow Ortiz as he surveys more "stuff," first in the cluttered home of an ornery old coot played by Bruce Dern, then at the burned out home of Ellen Burstyn's Helen, whose character carries much of the film even when it branches out in different directions.
Helen has lost nearly all her earthly possessions in the fire, in those few moments before her home was engulfed in flames taking time to grab only some pieces of jewelry and a treasured baseball handed down by her late father-in-law to her late husband. It is this baseball, which it is determined has enough value to secure her future, that becomes the driving force behind the life of Nostalgia. Will, played by Jon Hamm in his best performance to date, is a memorabilia dealer who presents with a quiet stoicism that has us making judgments about him and his encounters with Helen long before his character's story arc plays itself out.
It is much to the credit of Hamm that Will's motivation and inspiration isn't easily figured, the quiet stoicism slightly veiling what we see in moments as an equally quiet decency that suggests ethics where there might not ought to be any. When Nostalgia takes a potentially overly melodramatic turn as Will returns to his family home to deal with his own family tragedy alongside his sister, Donna (Catherine Keener), and her daughter (Annalise Basso). While Keener's Donna could have so easily been a throwaway role, such a thing never happens when Keener is on the screen and, in fact, hers is the performance that glues the entirety of Nostalgia together in ways that are achingly painful and stunning in their beauty.
Nostalgia delves, at times not so gently, into the unevenness of our relationships with "things" and how abstract that relationship can become over the years. In the moments after watching Nostalgia, I found myself wondering why I had so committedly held onto items that had little or no actual value and that represented a relationship that had become far more romanticized over the years than it ever deserved. The panties, for example, represent not the remarkable intimacy of lost lovers but the sole act of intimacy between two young adults who were, at the time, troubled and searching and who looked up at one another afterwards and realized that they had, indeed, made a mistake.
Am I holding on to the love? Am I holding on to the mistake? Am I somehow holding on to the myriad of hopes and dreams and visions that companioned that night and that relationship and that marriage AND that loss?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Nostalgia isn't a perfect film, but considering the subject matter any semblance of perfection would make it somehow imperfect anyway. It's a messy film about messy stuff and messy people living messy lives. The film's ensemble cast is uniformly strong, most notably Hamm's career-best work, Keener's extraordinarily insightful performance, Ortiz's quiet spark, and solid supporting turns from Annalise Basso, Patton Oswalt, James Le Gros, Nick Offerman, and Mikey Madison.
Matt Sakatani Roe's lensing focuses less on trauma and drama and more on its lingering impact, while Laurent Eyquem's original score is enveloping even as it vacillates between emotional distance and uncomfortable intimacy.
A quiet gem equally possessing of visible scars and transparent wonders, Nostalgia is a cinematic journey where intimacy meets life experience and observations don't necessarily equal resolutions.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic