There's a push-pull dynamic coursing through the late-in-life romance "Lovely, Still" that keeps the film intriguing even when it looks like it's going to sink into sentimentality. It's probably the first movie to premiere at the AARP's national convention to sport original music from indie-rock favorite Conor Oberst and a score from members of his band, Bright Eyes. And what does Oberst sing? Mostly Christmas songs, natch.
Oberst's unlikely involvement comes through his friendship with fellow Omaha native Nik Fackler, who wrote and directed "Lovely Still" and shot it in his hometown. It's Fackler's first movie and represents an impressive debut. He's sensitively attuned to his actors and deeply committed to examining the dilemmas inherent in aging.
Without any explanation or back story, Fackler drops us immediately into the film's central relationship. Robert ( Martin Landau) returns home from working at the local supermarket to find new neighbor Mary ( Ellen Burstyn) rummaging through his house. She tells him she saw his front door open and his car crumpled into the garage door and wanted to make sure he was OK. If that seems presumptuous, Mary has another surprise for Robert — she wants to go out on a date tomorrow night.
Robert is both taken aback and completely delighted by this newfound presence in his lonely life. He and Mary spend the days before Christmas tobogganing, holding hands and waltzing under gently falling snow, a series of Norman Rockwell paintings scored to holiday hymns.
All the while, though, there's a gnawing sense that Robert's sudden change of fortune is too good to be true. Fackler plants subtle clues, including a recurring, disjointed nightmare that visits Robert nightly, as he builds toward a revelation that, while not entirely seamless, honors this tender story.
The actors do their part, too. At 77, Burstyn looks more beautiful than ever and works wonders with the movie's silent passages, particularly toward the movie's bittersweet conclusion. Landau, 82, dives into the demands of his scattered character and, boy, his smile lights up the screen. The good news: The pairing isn't a one-shot. Burstyn and Landau will soon re-team in another family drama, directed by Barry Levinson's son, Sam Levinson. They have a hard act to top.