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Riders to the sea 

Set in North Carolina, Loggerheads is tender and moving

Tim Kirkman's Loggerheads is the second of two indie films set and made in North Carolina by N.C. natives to reach Triangle theaters this season. Though it's been noted here before, I think it's worth stressing how unusual the phenomenon they comprise is. Every year over 2,000 films are submitted to the Sundance Film Festival, yet only 16 make it into the festival's dramatic competition. Of those 16, only a portion go on to gain distribution and play theaters nationwide. That Loggerheads and Phil Morrison's Junebug both belong to this cream-of-the-cream group speaks volumes about the promise of their respective directors.

The films have a number of other things in common, beyond being debut dramatic features by filmmakers in their 30s who are now based in New York. Both movies deal with the trials, difficulties and importance of family life in ways are that searching and compassionate rather than derisory or reductive. And both evidently were made in North Carolina not because the scenery's nice and the cost of filming lower. Rather, to a certain extent they're about North Carolina's people and culture, and the filmmakers' feelings about their native state.

Genre-wise, however, the films are crucially different. With its oblique dramatic approach and offbeat sense of humor, Junebug fits neatly into the "indie art-film" niche; critics drew comparisons to directors such as Jim Jarmusch and Gus Van Sant. Loggerheads, on the other hand, is a social-issues drama hinging on the legal barriers that keep women who give up kids for adoption from reconnecting with their progeny.

Given that ostensible subject, the movie's success at festivals and beyond deserves to be counted as doubly remarkable. Hardly typical of the films that get admitted to Sundance (much less those that go on to earn national distribution), Loggerheads seems to win over diverse kinds of audiences with the emotional depth of its story, the vivid work of its cast and the fastidious skill of its making. Not surprisingly, many of the favorable reviews it's garnered radiate a sense of "This is not the type of movie I generally like, but I really liked this one."

For North Carolina viewers, the film has an additional appeal. Call it Kirkman's shrewdly metaphorical sense of geographic geometry. In a state that boasts both a Triad and a Triangle, he takes what's called the "adoption triad" (child, birth mother, adoptive mother) and finds a dramatic correlative in North Carolina's tripartite division into mountains, piedmont and coastal plain.

It's Mother's Day in Asheville when we meet Grace (Bonnie Hunt), a pretty but nervous-seeming airport worker who quits her job on sudden impulse. There's obviously something she wants, something connected to her past and a nervous breakdown she suffered. Eventually, the long suppressed urge spills out: She gave up a son for adoption years before and wants to know what happened to him. The desire will lead her to Charlotte and straight up against a wall of separation the state has constructed expressly to frustrate and thwart quests like Grace's.

In Eden, north of Greensboro, another mom is enduring a different form of separation. Elizabeth (Tess Harper), a housewife married to Robert (Chris Sarandon), a conservative minister, seems to fret at every new turn of events in her neighborhood, such as a friend's front-yard display of a copy of Michelangelo's David, or the arrival of a new household that appears to be comprised of two men and a little boy.

These odd disturbances seem like psychic shadows of what's really bothering Elizabeth: Her and Robert's son--an adopted son--left town some time before, having been rejected by his parents when he disclosed his homosexuality. The boy has kept in touch with one neighbor, though, and aware of that potential link, Elizabeth yearns to track him down.

South of Wrightsville in Kure Beach, motel owner George (Michael Kelly) notices an attractive newcomer who's apparently been sleeping on the beach. Mark (Kip Pardue) isn't just camping out, though. He has an environmentalist's fascination with loggerhead turtles, which deposit their eggs on the beach and then abandon them. George, a gay man whose partner drowned sometime before, gives Mark a place to stay and soon establishes a tentative romantic bond with him.

Mark, of course, is the son whose absence is felt by both Grace and Elizabeth. As Loggerheads unfolds, Kirkman repeatedly shifts between mountains, piedmont and coast as he explores the trajectories of three different sets of characters. And there's something very unusual about the way he orchestrates the narrative shifting. When most movies employ such cross-cutting, the natural assumption is that the disparate stories are happening concurrently. In Loggerheads the three stories, though intercut as if they were concurrent, actually transpire in different years: 1999 in Kure Beach, 2000 in Eden, 2001 in Asheville. (When I saw the film at Sundance, these time differences had to be deduced from certain aural clues within each story. Subsequently, titles were added that identify the years in which the different stories occur.)

This unusual storytelling device is important in a couple of ways. For one, it sets up a dramatic conclusion to all three stories that's at once revelatory and very moving. For another, it's a crucially distinctive element in what can only be called the film's poetic. The time-shifting isn't just a clever narrative trick, in other words. In the context of a story which concerns the ways people fail to connect with each other, it provides an ingenious temporal correlative--one that reminded me of the anxiety over time in Fassinder's Lili Marleen, which in turn mirrors Ophuls' La Ronde--for the walls of fear and misunderstanding that separate the main characters.

As noted, there's also what might be called a prosaic element to Kirkman's enterprise. Based on a true story, Loggerheads does explore the effects of laws that block birth parents from contacting the children they've given up for adoption. No doubt people concerned with this issue will find much in the film to engage them. For the rest of us, though, it's the movie's poetic--that is, cinematic--attributes that prove so involving and memorable.

Put simply, Loggerheads is one of the most beautifully written, directed and acted films I've seen this year. Whether you call it drama or melodrama, to watch it is to marvel that American movies--Hollywood and independent alike--seldom seem to approach such delicate human subject matter without condescending to the characters or over-hyping their emotional perplexities.

Kirkman succeeds because he approaches his material with sensitivity, subtlety and an unerring sense of film craft, all of which are anchored in a virtue that's perhaps even rarer: an absolute, unwavering sincerity. The writer-director takes each character seriously, rather than quantifying or judging them. This is perhaps most striking in the case of Elizabeth and her husband Robert, small-town Christians whose break with their gay son could easily invite caricature or derision, but here receives only a sad, incisive understanding. As Stephen Holden noted of the Eden couple in his New York Times review, "Loggerheads makes it easy not only to believe in them, but to care about them as well."

That quality of sympathetic comprehension infuses every aspect of the film, including the excellent performances Kirkman elicits from his cast, of whom Hunt, Harper and Pardue struck me as particularly outstanding. The same quality extends even to the film's portrayal of North Carolina's three regions. These far-flung places are not only beautiful to behold (thanks in part to Oliver Bokelberg's exemplary cinematography); they also exude the feeling of being beheld by someone who has known them deeply and intimately, as perhaps only a native can.

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