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Loving (2016)
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by Jay Seaver

"The right to not be a big deal."
4 stars

There are a number of impressive pieces to "Loving", but the impressive thing that they coalesce into is a relative lack of obvious drama. The court case of Loving v. Virginia is a huge deal - one could argue that it struck a blow against segregation at such a basic level that few other forms of discrimination could stand afterward - but its importance comes from the fairly unremarkable situations that it enabled and protected. Those are the moments that writer/director Jeff Nichols gives the time and focus to, and by doing so he reinforces the absurdity of how things were before.

Indeed, he starts the film by seemingly playing events in reverse: Richard Loving (Joel Edgeton) and his wife Mildred (Ruth Negga) are hosting a party in their small house. Then she's telling him that she's pregnant. Then he's building the house. Then he's taking her into a field where he will build the house and proposing to her. Then they're out with some drag-racing friends, and for the first time, the fact that Richard is the only white person in a mostly-black crowd starts to stand out, as it likely would in rural Virginia back in the 1950s, so that when Nichols switches directions, starting to move forward rather than back, that's when their having to go to the District of Columbia to get married starts to take on some significance, with the local sheriff (Marton Csokas) eventually busting down their door to arrest them for miscegenation being sadly inevitable.

Nichols could easily have started from the beginning, showing how Richard and Mildred met (or how they had always known each other), the disapproving glances they would have had to brave before getting to a point where they might even consider marrying, the planning to go to D.C., but he doesn't, and it's a good decision for a number of reasons. As much as it might be easy to stoke a modern viewers' outrage with Jim Crow laws and displays of casual, open racism, not doing so keeps the movie from becoming a risk/reward thing where the audience ever really thinks about whether Richard and Mildred should have married as a practical consideration. It's something that comes up, of course, but a surprisingly large portion of the film is just watching the pair, getting a sense of how the pair is, by an large, not extraordinary.

Things do happen to get the Lovings from one place to another, though, and even though they are pointedly (sometimes humorously) not the ones whose actions determine their destinies, the moments when things do move forward are played deftly. Nichols presents an intriguingly skewed variation on how these stories often play out in the movies, with the Lovings and Jeters country people too concerned with making ends meet to have the luxury of caring about the skin for of their neighbors and associates compared to the more sophisticated folks in town. Meanwhile, the eager, young, white civil-rights attorney is generally presented as having his heart firmly in the right place, but prone to let his eagerness to do something historic blind him to what it might mean for his individual clients.

Nick Kroll plays that part as funny rather than worrisome, but while he's a bright spot in his scenes, the bulk of the film rests on Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. They are impressive in how they make Mildred and Richard relatively unworldly and uncomplicated without their seeming flat - they don't build their characters around why only they could have challenged these laws, but there's always something compelling to them in the moment. Edgerton gives Richard an underlying tension in almost all of his scenes that makes the moments when it disappears that much more notable; Negga starts out playing Mildred with a high, breathy voice and an innocence that can feel like ignorance but transforms into strength and optimism naturally enough that one doesn't necessarily wonder why it hasn't become pessimism and a different sort of hardness.

It's fun to see how the rest of the crew supports Negga in this - watch how Mildred's dress sense changes throughout the movie while Richard's basically stays the same. She's getting more sophisticated in her understanding of the world even as she still plans to retain her same place, knowing that she had to fight to stay in one place in a way that Richard doesn't. More generally, Nichols presents the movie in a more linear fashion after the start, but he'll use frequent cut-inns to the building of the house mentioned at the start to emphasize the domestic situation they're trying to build, focusing on that rather than the legal fight, which is pushed into a blurry background at what would often be crucial moments. It's noteworthy to see this come out relatively close on the heels of Nichols's sci-fi thriller Midnight Special, because a lot of the shots of Richard driving down country roads, trying to stay out of unseen pursuers' sight, have a very similar paranoid feel.

The Lovings' story gained added relevance in the last couple years, as a similar case made its way to the Supreme Court to expand marriage equality to same-sex couples, and for many, Nichols' film complements the way we interacted with that story, in terms of attention paid to the individual family versus the broader achievement. In that, it's a welcome reminder of how major changes can come from a couple of people just trying to live a normal life, delivered in warm, engaging fashion.

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originally posted: 11/02/16 12:22:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2016 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

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  04-Nov-2016 (PG-13)
  DVD: 07-Feb-2017


  DVD: 07-Feb-2017

Directed by
  Jeff Nichols

Written by
  Jeff Nichols

  Joel Edgerton
  Ruth Negga
  Michael Shannon
  Marton Csokas
  Nick Kroll
  Alano Miller

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