Perhaps the most striking thing about Old Joy is how it feels like Portland. No, it doesn't just look like it—though there are the dark skies, the washed-out gray light, that cool haze that subdues the vibrancy of Northwest forests and can humanize something as artificial as the St. Johns Bridge. Old Joy's opening moments take place in industrial NE, in a sleepy neighborhood, and on a highway drive along the river—quintessential Portland locations that precede the characters' extended trip into the dense, rich greenery around Estacada. And in these moments, the filmmakers establish something, visually and emotionally, that I have yet to see anyone else accomplish: Old Joy captures the subtle nuances of being in Portland, what it feels like to wake up and walk around and live here.
As rare and impressive as that feat is, Old Joy has even more going for it—which is good, since the entertainment factor inherent in landmark-spotting only goes so far. No, what really makes Old Joy worth seeing is that—all Portland connections aside—it's a pretty superb film. Written by local author Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt (who also directed the film), Old Joy focuses on two men, Mark and Kurt. Mark (Daniel London) is well on his way to becoming one sort of Portland cliché—he's an Air America-listening guy who is expecting a kid, and is, however reluctantly, settling into the steady, predictable stream of adult life. Mark's old friend Kurt (musician Will Oldham), however, has another personality familiar to Portlanders—he's a rambling free-spirit, affable and eager. So Kurt calls Mark, the two make plans to go camping, and soon they're in Mark's Volvo, getting lost on the way to some hot springs.
And—on the surface, at least—that's about all that happens in Old Joy. The two drive, camp, drink, smoke, hike, and talk their way through the film's just-over-an-hour running time, their discussions covering everything from old friends to quantum mechanics. So, okay, plot-wise, it doesn't feel like a lot happens—but emotionally, an astonishing amount transpires. Kurt and Mark soon grow out of their Northwest stereotypes, thanks to Oldham and London's earnest performances. Opening up to each other—and keeping just as much hidden—the two develop a bond with each other and the audience, making Old Joy unique and moving. Add in Reichardt's penchant for subtly beautiful shots and patient pacing, and a Yo La Tengo soundtrack that's not nearly as annoying as you might think, and Old Joy becomes a film that's both singular and captivating. It's something that, in all the right ways, feels uniquely local.