American writer-director Kelly Reichardt has produced a beautifully singular and singularly beautiful body of work that has spanned nearly three decades, with her latest film Showing Up (2022), running this year at Cannes, earning her further international recognition as an indispensable voice in the contemporary filmmaking. Save some forays in historical revisionist ‘Westerns’ that subvert genre conventions of heroic masculinity and rugged individualism (see Meek’s Cutoff and First Cow), Reichardt’s work typically deals with the different manifestations of eccentricity, displacement, and loneliness of characters who find themselves in the Late-Age United States. Her treatment of these stories is piercing and unflinching, and altogether avoids peddling the platitudinous spiritualism characteristic of the coeval releases in the American indie circuit. What makes her films remarkable is her capacity to convey human dramas that involve bleakness and melancholy without surrendering to a cynical lassitude; it is an approach to filmmaking that regards untangling emotion and imperfection with reverence and conviction.
Old Joy (2006) is a work that elides a feeling of warmth and sympathy to wider brushstrokes of American unhappiness with alarming emotional honesty. The film is an adaptation of a short story of the same name by Jonathan Raymond, which explores the relationship between Mark, a sensitive suburbanite on the cusp of fatherhood, and Kurt, a shaggy and unburdened nomad, as they conflict in a subtle spiritual battle of while trying to rekindle a long dormant friendship. The former is resentful and envious of Kurt’s hand-to-mouth hippie lifestyle, one unencumbered by the duties of being a husband, a homeowner, a father. The latter, who is finding it increasingly difficult to find reprieve from adult obligations, senses an abyssal divide between himself and Mark that he cannot account for, and hopes to remediate that distance with an impromptu camping trip. Where Reichardt excels is her capacity to pry open an unromantic vulnerability from these characters with a radical sincerity that eschews disdain or judgment.
In a cultural landscape polluted with affectlessness and nihilistic resignation, creating sentimental melodrama that addresses human grief and emotional candor is essential in energizing a movement towards bald empathy. New Sincerity is an artistic movement, one that is typified by Old Joy and most everything else in Reichardt’s oeuvre, that seeks to overturn the ironic detachment of the late 20th century and deals with untrendy human emotions and struggles that risk accusations of coming across as mawkish or naive. The instantiation of New Sincerity was in response to a widening sentiment that though the cold cynicism of post-modernism may be an effective tool at debunking the American public’s overcredulity in ‘old-fashioned’ spiritual touchstones, it is a mode of thinking that is unable to generate new systems of meaning.
It is when emotional vulnerability is too readily scoffed at or rebuked with a condescending remark that patterns of alienation begin to calcify in the collective consciousness, and authentic connection is supplanted with veneers of affability and faux-intimacy. Such is the case of Mark and Kurt, who can recognize a rift between them but who lack the tools to express and remediate it; and in that mutual retraction the sorrow deepens, the gap widens. Hence Old Joy is a cautionary tale, not one that warns against the smothering of tepid domestic living nor the emptiness of a hedonistic nomadism, but the inevitable destination of diffidence.