Aiming for a sense of soulful introspection that instead comes off as an unwitting parody of languid indie conventions, Martha Stephens’s Pilgrim Song so insists on its purported subtlety that a preferable alternative would be a film where, indeed, literally nothing happens. The director’s sophomore effort frequently brings to mind Kelly Reichardt’s earlier work, albeit with little understanding of their measured rhythms and deeply felt empathy. Occasionally poetic touches, such as a frog glimpsed briefly during the title shot or the peripheral noise a child makes while playing with a dog by a lake, are perhaps indicative of the writer-director’s burgeoning talent, but they might also be mere happy accidents amid the pseudo-spiritual rubble. The overwhelming majority of the film strains to capture something about The Great Meaning Of It All, with every misplaced zoom-in, cloying music cue, and off-kilter cutaway to a bug or mushroom falling into place with hollow profundity and dull predictability.
Even more obnoxious than the film’s artistry is its leading character, James (Timothy Morton), who, after being laid off from his job as a music teacher, decides to spend his summer months hiking through Kentucky’s trail-laden mountains. A prick to his live-in girlfriend, Joan (Karrie Crouse, radiant and wholly underused), the wannabe mountain man eventually pairs up with a backwoods drunkard, Lyman (Bryan Marshall), and his son, Bo (Harrison Cole), after twisting his ankle, and bears witness to the former’s crumbling demeanor when a night out at a concert turns ugly when Lyman’s ex-wife shows up under the arm of her new boyfriend. Particularly during its second, more dramatic half, Stephens’s film wants for believable character motivation, and as well-meaning as Pilgrim Song might be at the surface level, its inability to lend even the slightest modicum of empathy to its lead character speaks less to sehnsucht (a German term expounded by Stephens in the film’s press kit, roughly translated as “an intense longing for an unknown desire”) than its own inability to articulate the emptiness that often accompanies unsatisfying or overly-familiar circumstances in life. Like many of his generation, James might be lost, but a good film would at least hold him accountable for also being an asshole.