Despite the title making it sound like a lost Prince album, Alma Har’el’s LoveTrue, a follow-up to her award-winning Bombay Beach, is in fact an experimental documentary tracking the lives of three people as they negotiate difficult real-life relationships.
Blake is a Warhammer nerd and stripper dating Joel, a man with a disease that has given him extremely brittle bones. Coconut Willie is a Hawaiian coconut collector, dealing with finding out his son is not his biological child by surfing and saying bleak ‘Bill and Ted’-isms like “I thought about committing suicide, but that shit is gnarly.” Then we have Victory, a girl adapting to life following the separation of her parents in ambiguous circumstances. Their stories intercut each other, and are intercut themselves with dramatic reconstructions featuring non-actors playing older and younger versions of each character in dream-like sequences or in faux-home movies.
If this sounds a little complicated, think of it as a freer version of Errol Morris’ classic documentary ‘Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control’, in which he too intertwines very different subjects to raise wider points about the world we live in. Anthology documentaries like this ask a lot of their audiences, and to get something out of them, you have to be willing to find common threads between very different lives, and bear with less interesting stories to get wider insight into the stories you are interested in.
LoveTrue does not make this process easy. Morris’ documentary turned its parts into a beautiful cohesive whole. Har’el’s film, in contrast, sometimes feels like she has just taken half a TV series of half-hour documentaries, cut it up on the editing table, then threaded it back together at random as an eighty minute film. Individual sequences work, like Blake looking on as an actor playing her younger self is bullied among a series of distorted statues representing kids on a school bus. Together, though, the experimental elements can serve to completely take you away from the stories themselves, which become less insights into the nature of love and just become excuses to make little style exercise vignettes that betray the director’s history as a music video maker.
But what style these vignettes have. The best of them are two scenes set in strips clubs. One, representing Blake’s view, turns a seedy bar into a place of colourful creative expression, with dancers twirling in neon colours over a lush beat by Flying Lotus, who does a great job soundtracking the film. The other, representing Coconut Willie’s, brings back the sordidness, with the bar filmed as a series of handheld shots that show the grimy desperation of the place. These sequences show what the experimental flourishes could have been, with each one representing its given subject’s emotional state and differing view of the world.
Alongside these larger scenes, Har’el also has a great eye for character. It is no coincidence that this film was executively produced by Shia LaBeouf. Blake, Willie, and Victory could all be characters from his American Honey crew, and Har’el shows as much talent painting a picture of their lives as Andrea Arnold manages in that film. She has a talent of being able to paint a picture of someone’s entire person through a single shot, be it of Willie smoking two cigarettes at once whilst on Tinder, or of one of Blake’s co-workers, crying while wearing a bracelet of plastic penises.
Other moments are just out-and-out stunning, such as a sequence in which the director dramatises Willie confronting the real father of his child as an undersea fight. In these moments, the film is allowed to be funny, and sad, and certainly lives up to the latter half of its title.