So Yong Kim’s Lovesong unfolds like a narratively stripped-down version of My Best Friend’s Wedding if Julia Roberts had secretly been in love with Cameron Diaz instead of Dermot Mulroney. Split into two distinct halves, the film chronicles a three-year span of a blossoming friendship between Sarah (Riley Keough), a twentysomething living in rural Pennsylvania with her young daughter (Jessie Ok Gray), and Mindy (Jena Malone), a childhood friend visiting her hometown after being away for several years.
Kim composes scenes with an eye for passing details, whether surveying the items in Sarah’s cluttered home or focusing on the way Sarah enjoys the breeze coming through open windows during an afternoon drive. These specifics compel Kim’s understanding of Sarah’s constraints: Instead of exclusively pinning Sarah’s malcontent on her distant husband, Dean (Cary Joji Fukunaga), whose presence amounts to a seldom video chat, the character’s dissatisfaction also stems from an existential unfamiliarity with her immediate environment and, thus, her own body and desires.
The film’s screenplay oscillates between such interests in quotidian, documentary-tinged ethnography and revealing conversations that veer into tales of sexual intimacy. Late one night, Sarah and Mindy talk about Sarah’s sex life with Dean. From Sarah’s descriptions it’s a dull affair, with a night for anal sex scheduled as if it were weekly grocery shopping. These sorts of revelations are surprising, if calculated, given Kim’s general reliance on images, such as Sarah slowly sinking underwater in a bathtub, to convey the character’s numbness. The largely one-sided conversation no doubt recalls comparable discussions about sexual desire in Persona, but Kim wields these moments as explicit counterpoints to reject the preceding sense that the film is reveling in Sarah’s angst. By giving her a body through the naming of sex acts, Kim foreshadows a unique unity between distinctly visual forms of poetic longing and the wholly physical necessity of sex as a source of pleasure.
Lovesong dances around these possibilities before a jarring ellipsis vaults the story three years into the future, where Mindy, now living in Nashville, is set to marry Leif (Ryan Eggold). Sarah arrives with her daughter in tow, having barely managed to conceal her amorous affections for Mindy since a night they slept together during Mindy’s stay. Kim modulates the film’s prior functioning as essentially a two-hander to account for various members of the wedding party, including Lily (Brooklyn Decker), whose determination to tell dirty jokes during the rehearsal dinner becomes a peculiar commentary on the film’s underlying thesis about the difficulty of reconciling beauty and sex.
When Lily tells a particularly nasty joke that revolves around implied pedophilia, it triggers Sarah’s sexual anxiety. If Kim stops short of granting Sarah a childlike innocence, the character’s subsequent determination to reveal her true feelings poses no real threat to breaking apart the bonds of heterosexual matrimony. But as Lovesong suggests, this isn’t Sarah’s doing, only the demands of a social system that strands women with apathetic husbands as a rite of passage into womanhood. Though not as direct in its appeals to the choking effects of forced domesticity in cultural conceptions of femininity as Todd Haynes’s Carol, the film ultimately manages a convincing articulation of the complex friendship between women as a possible out from the repressive dead ends of sexual and emotional destitution.