Kelly Reichardt's latest is a subtle, elegant meditation on friendship and identity in a cultural moment where honest cultivation of either is treated like a luxury. The NYU professor's second feature in twelve years, Old Joy stars indie folk/rock legend Will Oldham, and Daniel London as two old friends grown distant. Oldham steals the show as Kurt, a scrappy manchild who calls clean-cut father-to-be Mark out of nowhere and suggests they embark on a camping trip that afternoon. Both men appear to be in their late 30s, but that's where the similarities end. Mark channels his ample liberal guilt into self-righteous volunteer work; when Kurt mentions a recent wild night with an old, mutual roommate, all Mark can remark is that the guy owes him money. Kurt, meanwhile, is the prototypical neo-hippie space cadet, and is clearly getting too old for his practiced nomadism. He's still together enough to know that he's a little far gone – he's riding that fine line between knowing how crazy his ideas sound aloud, and knowing with equal certitude that his eccentricities are all he has left.
There's a kind of inherent queasiness to revisiting a dormant friendship, and Reichardt gets this exactly right. Mark is clearly resistant to Randy's efforts to rekindle their bond, and it eventually becomes clear that time elapsed is not the only roadblock standing between the estranged friends. It's clearly been awhile since the heyday of these guys' relationship, and Reichardt uses the temporal distance between the men to paint an elegy for all things that time frustrates before it outright kills. If the primary concern of the film is a single relationship's demise, Reichardt uses the idea of time to deftly meander through other themes, and in its own way, Old Joy is just as much about the death of the small town and the privatization of nature as it is about these two guys. When Kurt asks about the local indie record store, Mark informs him that it's been turned into a smoothie place call ReJUICEnation; later, Kurt drunkenly mumbles something about the connection between sorrow and "worn-out joy", and the whole film clicks into place.
After the film's first SXSW screening, Reichardt acknowledged that she had prepared backstories for each of her characters – each actor was made aware of a past incident that had essentially ruined this friendship, and both were directed to work that knowledge into their performances without specifically acknowledging their traumatic past. And so one character waits until the pair is stranded for the night to break down and reference their shared distance, the other pretends like nothing is happening, and some kind of uneasy balance is reclaimed. Meanwhile, the film couldn't look better (it's gorgeously shot in matte primaries, with almost supernaturally green pines piercing a slate gray sky), and Yo La Tengo's mellow guitar score is the perfect accompaniment to Reichardt's highly economical film.