Less is more in this rueful and sensitively observed study of male friendship undermined by the passing of time. Written and directed by Kelly Reichardt (River of Grass, Ode), and accompanied by a melancholic Yo La Tengo soundtrack, Old Joy follows two thirtysomethings Kurt and Mark (played respectively by the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy singer Will Oldham and Daniel London), who head out of Portland one weekend into Oregon’s Cascade mountains.
The plot to Old Joy could be scribbled on the back of an envelope: a pair of old friends, who haven’t seen one another for a considerable period of time, and whose lives have drifted far apart, drive into the Mount Hood forest area in search of a remote hot springs. They get lost, camp out overnight, and the next day find their destination before heading back to the city.
Reichardt skilfully conveys the awkwardness and hesitancy between her two protagonists. Their conversation is strained, with the married Mark, concerned about impending fatherhood, the more reticent individual. It’s the hippyish, pot-bellied Kurt, who reminisces about ‘transformative experiences’, presents his own take on astrophysics, and recollects his dreams. Over a campfire he confesses that, ‘I miss you Mark. I miss you real bad, I want to be friends again.’
Old Joy also connects the personal to the political. Mark and Kurt listen in despondent silence in the car to the progressive radio station Air America, where callers give vent to the despair felt by those on the Left in Bush’s America. It’s not just the friendship of these particular two individuals that may be coming to an end, the film suggests, it’s the vanishing of alternative ways of living.