Alma Har’el became something of a festival darling with her debut feature, Bombay Beach, in 2011. In addition to scoring her the Best Documentary Award at that year’s Tribeca Film Festival, it also endeared her to the increasingly art-savvy Shia LaBeouf, who went on to bankroll her latest offering – LoveTrue. Where Bombay Beach was a sumptuous exploration of masculinity and time, LoveTrue sees Har’el turn her focus to love; a broad topic, and an admittedly tall order for a feature clocking in at just over 80 minutes.
Like Bombay Beach, LoveTrue centers on three subjects; Blake Gurther, a self-proclaimed geek moonlighting as an exotic dancer in Alaska; William Hunt, a lovelorn surfer and coconut farmer in Hawaii; and Liberty Boyd, a New York teen with astonishing musical talent, still coming to terms with the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. Throughout the film Har’el examines the roles love plays in these disparate lives, drifting from agony to ecstasy and back again. To Blake, her relationship with boyfriend Joel is a lifeline; an escape route from the bleak future she envisions for herself. William’s love for his 2-year-old son becomes a catalyst for introspection and an examination of the meaning of fatherhood when he learns the child is not biologically his. Liberty’s vignettes broaden the documentary’s scope ever further with their mediations on marriage, infidelity, and the strains a separation can place on familial love.
Despite surging through the deeply intimate and differing experiences of its central subjects in great detail, the film avoids falling into the trappings of mundanity thanks to Har’el’s sparklingly dynamic direction and cinematography. Expected documentary fodder of talking heads and dramatic reconstructions are punctuated by what Har’el credits as ‘psychodramas’ – dreamy sequences of flash backs and illustrations of her subjects’ thoughts, replacing dialogue with subtitles and her otherwise crisp photography with Super-8-esque graininess. These sequences serve to broaden the narratives of each subject, as well as allowing us a window into their anxieties. Furthermore, it serves a deeper purpose in illustrating each subject’s need to rationalize and accept the enormity of their emotions through storytelling. This is later echoed in a public access interview with Boyd’s father, where he promotes his book ‘The First Order of Love‘; an attempt to absolve himself from past marital transgressions and reconcile his infidelities. Of course, the notion of spinning experience into stories as a route to acceptance is as much a central theme of the film as love itself.
Adding further flourish to these psychodramas are actors cast as Boyd’s mother, young Gurther, old Gurther, and young Hunt. Both the actors and subjects are affected by this marriage of the real and unreal. The film’s veil of drama frequently slips away, the actors and subjects engaging in what can only be described as a form of Gestalt therapy – exorcising past demons through reliving their troubled pasts together. The actress playing Old Gurther, a cautionary vision of an aging stripper, begins to ruminate on her own life choices. She, in reality, is an aging stripper. She, like Gurther, feared this outcome. In this regard the film strays, quite surprisingly and refreshingly, from its central premise to become a fascinatingly therapeutic exercise for all those involved.
While LoveTrue is unlikely to set every heart aflame with its delicate pacing and day-to-day issues, it’s certainly worthy viewing for its experimentation and self-reflection. Like Sarah Polley’s 2012 feature Stories We Tell, it’s a gentle documentary that pokes and prods at our need to confine emotion within narrative. Though far from a must-watch, it’s nonetheless an engaging and thoughtful piece from a director who remains one to watch.
Words by Saoirse Ní Chiaragáin