Plays January 5-18
Northwest Film Forum
I’m not sure why Old Joy works as well as it does, but it does. What I can see is why it ended up on so many top 10 lists last year and will probably win the Independent Spirit Award for best film made for under $500,000. You see, the movie has so few words in it, it’s almost like you need to review it with pictures or photos. But I’ll try with words…
The story is basic. Before his wife gives birth to their first child, Mark (Daniel London) decides to take some time off from responsibilities around the home and go on a camping trip with an old friend he hasn’t seen in years. The old friend is Kurt (Will Oldham), a chronically underemployed free spirit who gets by on charm and grand ideas. John Hartl in The Seattle Times compared them to Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre, and I wish I would have thought of that myself because it’s a great way to describe this pragmatic guy hanging out with this idealistic dreamer.
This time Kurt’s big idea is to find these hot springs just east of Mark’s Portland home. So they buy some weed and hit the road. And they drive. Sometimes they talk and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they remember mutual friends or make basic observations, and sometimes they just stare at the scenery as they drive. And you are with them doing the very same thing. It’s one of those relaxing road trips where the journey is as important as the destination. It’s sort of uneventful, but it’s never boring.
I don’t know how much footage director Kelly Reichardt had to work with, I don’t know how many improvised conversations she had to draw from, I don’t know how much scenery she filmed, but she and her editor picked the most representational footage for a road trip. The story feels like it’s unfolding before you instead of along some predetermined structure. It could go anywhere, and you’d go right along with it.
Ultimately the trip wraps up, Mark rejoins his wife, and the two continue on with their separate lives. Was it completely transformative? Probably not, but it was a good trip and both are glad they made it. And you will be too if you join them. Heck, I'd go so far as to say that if you feel like going on a camping trip but don’t have the time or inclination to actually get away, then go see Old Joy. It's the next best thing to being there, and a damn good movie in its own right.