There are moments during Lovely, Still when it feels like you're trapped with Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in a kitschy musical Christmas snowglobe that someone keeps shaking.
"What in heaven's name are you two doing here?" you feel like asking the venerable film thespians, making goo-goo eyes at each other as Robert and Mary, a couple of lonely elders - neighbours in a Pleasantville-esque Midwestern town -who meet and find true love during the holiday season.
But writer-director Nicholas Fackler, making his feature debut here, makes sure we know something darker is lurking just beyond the Hallmark glow. The film's mostly saccharine story is punctuated with a repeated image of Christmas-light colours swirling like wisps of smoke against the murky fragment of what appears to be someone's childhood memory. The persistent sense of foreboding is finally explained by a revelation that comes quite late in the film and makes everything that's come before feel like a setup.
That doesn't mean Lovely, Still, which premiered two years ago at the Toronto film festival, is a cheat. Landau and Burstyn deliver beautiful, nuanced performances, creating a real and captivating onscreen chemistry. It's a testament to their talent that you find yourself slowly drawn into the bubble (make that snowglobe) of Robert and Mary's budding romance, as the music swells, the snowflakes flutter down and Christmas Day draws nearer.
The film's opening scenes show us the repetitive daily morning routine of Robert, who lives alone and dutifully trudges to the local grocery store where he works as a clerk. He comes home one day to find the front door of his house open and is first startled, then angry, to find Mary snooping around. But his new neighbour, who spotted him earlier in the day, says she saw the door open and was just checking to make sure he was alright. Soon they're on their first date and are behaving like shy teenagers from a bygone era.
Adam Scott lends some quirky comedy energy as the young grocery store manager who seems inept in the romance department but nevertheless takes Robert under his wing to help him navigate the crucial early steps with his new girlfriend. Elizabeth Banks provides balance as Mary's daughter, who is initially against her mother pursuing a relationship with Robert.
Fackler's penchant for turning on Christmas lights at every opportunity and surrounding the couple with sentimental music and picturesque scenery does suit Robert and Mary's new-found happiness. But when it comes to love stories about an older couple, I'll take the evolving complexity of Away From Her over the abrupt left turn at the end of Lovely, Still.
- Written and directed by Nicholas Fackler
- Starring Martin Landau, Ellen Burstyn, Elizabeth Banks and Adam Scott
- Classification: PG
Special to The Globe and Mail