TIFF 2016 | ‘Loving’ Is More Or Less All There Is
In 1967 the case of Loving v. Virginia was brought before the United States Supreme Court, where the justices found unanimously in favor of the defendants. This is not a spoiler because you live in the world that Loving v. Virginia created, a world in which Americans are now free to marry each other regardless of the color of their skin and, as of 2015, also regardless of their sexuality, thanks in part to the legal precedent that this case had set nearly five decades earlier.
Jeff Nichols’ film Loving is the story of Mildred Loving and Richard Loving, played by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, whose marriage was – if the movie is to be believed – only remarkable in its profound non-remarkability until the courts got involved. Mildred and Richard loved each other, and aside from a few sidelong glances (and at least one unidentified person who obviously reported them) this interracial couple was more or less accepted by their community as nice people going about their own business, never hurting anyone.
When the police show up, they do so with racism but without violent malice. Richard spends one night in jail, Mildred spends a few nights in jail, and soon they cop a plea for a suspended sentence in exchange for leaving the state of Virginia and never coming back for 25 years. And all is more or less well after that, wistful but well, until Mildred decides to write Robert F. Kennedy – then the U.S. Attorney General – for assistance. Kennedy refers her to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and a pair of lawyers help bring their case to the Supreme Court.
If that story sounds rather matter-of-fact it’s because that’s exactly how Jeff Nichols plays it. Loving has all the markings of prime Oscar Bait – a true story about social injustice that culminates in a big court case, etc. – but Nichols has never been a flashy director before and he sure as hell hasn’t started now. And yet in films like Mud and Midnight Special, for example, his characters have been put through significant trauma that infuses their stories with great gravitas, a gravitas we don’t really find in Loving. The whole film feels almost too slight for its own good.
But it’s called Loving for a reason, and it’s not just because that’s Mildred and Richard’s last name. (Although seriously, how weird was that?) Jeff Nichols presents Loving as the story of two uncomplicated people just living their lives, loving each other, enduring their hardships healthily together. If the events of the film had pushed them into great misery the stakes might have been raised but the point might also have been lost. All that matters is that these two people care about each other. Caring too much about any other aspect of their relationship is misguided and, as the Supreme Court eventually decided, essentially unconstitutional.
Of course, there’s a flip side to this decision. Underplaying all the external melodrama to focus on the innocent affection Mildred and Richard had for one another has the sometimes unfortunate side effect of, well, underplaying all the external melodrama. And since the film simply has to include plot-heavy court cases, especially the one in front of the Supreme Court, all those scenes feel somewhat out of place compared to the rest of the movie. When Loving isn’t about loving, it’s just cataloging red tape.
Loving is, if nothing else, a lovely little film. It’s a down to earth ode to love itself, albeit in a rather mild form, sweetly acted by two exceptional actors. It may not be a dramatic powerhouse but it’s still a well-constructed house, and the people who live there are well worth visiting.
Thirteen Must-See Films at TIFF 2016:
Top Photo: Focus Features
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.