Review: Lorelei

Lorelei (2021)
Written & Directed by Sabrina Doyle

Lorelei is a well-meaning film set in rural Oregon about a man trying to start his life over after a 15 years in prison. Despite solid performances throughout, and a well-researched story, the movie never really rose above its earnest intentions. I see this a lot in debut features — and debut novels, too — especially when the director is trying to work in a realistic mode. I give writer and director Sabrina Doyle credit for creating complex characters and for a certain optimism at the core of her storytelling. But even though I was rooting for the film, it got bogged it down by its many plot elements, and lacked a certain wit and levity. There was an overall lack of cohesion that made it slow going, especially in the final act.

Pablo Schreiber and Jena Malone star as high school sweethearts, Wayland and Dolores, who reunite when Wayland is released from prison. Wayland was convicted of armed robbery, related to the activities of a biker gang that he was a part of as a teenager. Although Wayland returns to his hometown — and his biker gang — his reunion with Dolores is unexpected. They’ve lost touch over the years and she’s had three children by three different men. When she and Wayland cross paths at the local church, which also serves as a halfway house, they are both far from their high school selves. Wayland has suffered the trauma of incarceration, including a long stint in solitary confinement as a punishment for fighting. Now in his early thirties, Wayland has a powerful physique, but there’s a gentleness to his demeanor. Schreiber gives Wayland a vulnerable self-awareness, playing him as someone who has learned to control his anger, but not through stoicism. Instead he expresses his anger directly to those around him, especially the minister who oversees the halfway house, and who he at first regards as a do-gooder out to convert him. The relationship that develops between the two of them was one of the more interesting parts of the movie.

Dolores’s pain is more subterranean as she reckons with Wayland’s sudden appearance in her life. His arrival forces her to confront the fact that fifteen years have passed and she’s not young anymore. Her oldest child, who she had when she was still in high school, is now the age that she was when she dated Wayland. As a teenager, Dolores was a competitive synchronized swimmer, but she had to quit when she became pregnant. As Dolores recounts it, her twenties were a confusing blur as she cared for her children and fell in and out of relationships with unreliable men. Wayland’s return is welcome, especially since he seems to have matured, and demonstrates a willingness to get to know her children. He wants to make up for lost time and so does she, but she also feels that he abandoned her when they were teenagers. She’s also just plain exhausted from raising three children on her own for fifteen years without a break. With her fidgety movements and nervous demeanor, Malone reveals the restless girl inside Dolores. She’s a grown woman who has never had the chance to get to know herself or her own desires.

Between Wayland’s biker gang, Dolores’s three children, and a host of side characters, there’s a lot going on this story–probably too much. Doyle is good at creating a small town feel, and it helped to give context to Wayland’s transition from prison to the outside world. His scenes with his parole officer and old biker buddies were well-researched and seemed grounded in the rural Oregon setting. Dolores’s world struck me as more fanciful and sometimes felt like a part of another movie. Doyle attempts to use Dolores’s aborted dreams of synchronized swimming as a transcendent visual element, but these scenes–dream sequences and surreal imagery–felt clumsy next to the realistic depictions of Wayland’s struggle to adapt to his new life. I wasn’t totally convinced that there would even be a synchronized swimming program at a rural public school. Dolores’s children, who are named after different shades of blue, also struck me as invented, each serving a different purpose for the script. Her oldest son is biracial, a fact that seems to startle and perhaps even disturbs Wayland, but the screenplay mostly shies away from Wayland’s reaction. Dolores’s youngest son likes to dress in girls’ clothes exclusively, something that Dolores indulges even as she’s concerned about bullying. Her middle child is a girl on the cusp of adolescence; she gets her first period in the third act of the movie, and although it’s a good scene, it felt like a scene from a TV show with pacing more suited to episodic storytelling.

Even with these flaws, I left Lorelei caring about Wayland and Dolores. I’ve turned off a lot of movies that are more sleekly made but with superficially-drawn characters. Doyle seems to be reaching for something humane, and demonstrated a real curiosity and appreciation for her rural setting. At its best, Lorelei shows how hard it is to start over, and all the different kinds of support a couple like Wayland and Dolores need from their community and from each other in order to have a real shot at a second chance.

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