In anticipation of this week's Provincetown International Film Festival, I was thinking back to some of the best films that I’ve seen at the festival over the past five years. The film that stands out the most in my mind is Tim Kirkman’s Loggerheads, which screened at the festival in 2005, the very first year that I attended.
The attributes that make Loggerheads so memorable for me are its narrative style, its tone, and its performances (though its writing, direction, and cinematography are just as commendable). Kirkman’s screenplay is structured around three separate but interlocking storylines, which take place at three different locations in the filmmaker’s home state of North Carolina during three consecutive years: Kure Beach in 1999, Eden in 2000, and Asheville in 2001. The brilliant intricacy with which Kirkman interweaves these stories throughout the film, jumping back and forth in time and space, never calls attention to itself, feeling perfectly natural and unimposing in each successive scene.
This ease of movement is reflected in the film’s unique tonal quality. I originally saw the film in Provincetown’s cavernous, echoing Town Hall, which has been closed and under renovation for the past two years. I sat in the back row to give myself some extra space, far from the screen and the sound-speakers. The distance and the immensity of the venue accentuated for me just how dramatically even and uninflected the tone of the entire film is. Although the narrative tension gradually builds throughout the film’s ninety minutes, the actors’ voices never rise above normal speaking volume. Only once or twice in a key scene does a character sound momentarily stern. That level evenness of tone — while keeping the audience’s attention thoroughly engaged at every moment — is extremely difficult to achieve.
The film’s intertwined plotlines are all centrally concerned with mothers, and the story is based on actual events. Grace, played with understated elegance by Bonnie Hunt, has long mourned the loss of the son to whom she gave birth out of wedlock as a teenager, and who was immediately placed with an anonymous family by an adoption agency. Because North Carolina laws stipulated (until very recently) that all adoption records must remain permanently sealed, Grace has been unable to find her son, Mark, who’s subtly and movingly portrayed by Kip Pardue. Those same laws also prevent Mark from initiating any sort of contact with his birth mother. By the time she locates him via the services of Rachel (Robin Weigert), a woman who relies on covert networking to make such connections happen, Grace is tragically about a year too late.
Through Mark’s story, we learn that he ran away from home at age 17 and has lived an itinerant life since then, due to fallout after his adoptive parents, a conservative minister and his reluctantly devoted wife, discovered that Mark is gay. Veteran screen actors Chris Sarandon and Tess Harper play Mark’s parents, Robert and Elizabeth, in a pair of impeccably detailed performances. In fact, all of the actors’ portrayals in the film are so delicately calibrated and finely crafted that they make award-winning performers seem nearly histrionic by comparison. Equally remarkable are Michael Kelly as George, the seaside motel manager with whom Mark becomes romantically involved, and Ann Owens Pierce as Ruth, Mark’s childhood neighbor who keeps in touch with him and eventually helps him overcome his estrangement from his adoptive mother, despite Elizabeth’s anxiety about the apparently gay male couple who’ve moved in across the street.
The opening image of Mark’s storyline is one of the most beautifully photographed introductions I’ve ever seen in any movie: the camera slowly pans across the sand to find Mark’s tousled blond hair and handsome, unshaven face in a sunlit close-up, just as he wakes from a night of sleeping on the beach. The image is also symbolic, as we find out later when the film’s title is explained during one of Mark’s monologues. He’s come to Kure Beach to see the rare loggerhead turtles; the place is a sanctuary for them, especially the female loggerheads, who return to the same beach where they were born when it’s time for them to lay their eggs. Grace, Mark’s birth mother, appears on this same beach in the film’s closing scene. The loggerhead symbolism lightly underscores the film, never feeling too blatant or heavy-handed.
As Mark begins his relationship with George, who finds him not long after he’s woken up, it becomes clear that Kure Beach — its name is no coincidence — will also be a protective sanctuary for Mark himself. He reveals to George that he tested positive for HIV on his 21st birthday, and that he’s decided not to treat the virus with medication. Pardue and Kelly are both believable and unexaggerated in their portrayals, refreshing to witness in an era when gay male characters are still too often presented in stereotypical ways. Cinema needs more gay male representations like the characters in this film: everyday, matter-of-fact, sexually open but not overly sexualized.
The most impressive and effective element of Kirkman’s film is its use of intelligent transitions. When juggling three storylines simultaneously, segues from scene to scene need to be seamless and sensible. Kirkman accomplishes this by poetically creating connections through both imagery and dialogue. One such instance occurs when the camera first gazes down a staircase to where Grace sits contemplatively, then cuts to an aerial perspective shot of Mark and George standing beneath a hotel balcony, and then finally cuts to Elizabeth staring down from her bedroom window as we hear her husband ask, “Are you spying on the homosexuals?” In a later scene, a shot of Mark's sky-blue bandanna fades into a gently revolving blue sky, with sunlight sifting down through white clouds around the borders. At every turn we can feel Kirkman’s sure directorial hand, even if we’re not aware of it at every moment. Ultimately, the film's trajectory is heartbreaking and restorative at once, like a long summer afternoon that I wished would never come to a close.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning the film’s soundtrack music, which features three strategically selected and precisely placed songs by contemporary folk performer Patty Griffin: “As Cold As It Gets,” “Rowing Song,” and “Forgiveness.” Given that Griffin didn’t write these numbers in relation to the film, it’s stunning how appropriately the lyrics of these tracks fit their respective scenes, both emotionally and thematically. I’ve been a fan of Griffin’s music for many years now, and hearing these songs again in the context of Kirkman’s film deepened my appreciation for her talents as a singer and songwriter even more.
Next week, I’ll be posting a full report about the 12th annual Provincetown International Film Festival here on my blog, including some critiques of my favorite films from this year’s festival.