Loggerheads is very probably the best film I’ve ever seen that was made in and is about North Carolina. It also offers, at least from my perspective, a far truer picture of the state than is presented by the usual “red state” stereotype.
It’s little wonder that writer/director Tim Kirkman refers to North Carolina as a character in his film. Set in Asheville, as well as the towns of Eden and Kure Beach, Loggerheads tells three interconnected stories that are actually just the individual components of one narrative. Working in a “fractured” timeline manner — the film is set in three different years as well as places — Kirkman deliberately and methodically overlaps his stories (and often his dialogue) for maximum dramatic impact rather than following a straightforward chronology. All too often, this kind of approach is little more than clever window dressing. Not so here. This stylistic device is not only the best way to tell the story, it’s really the only way.
At its simplest, Loggerheads is about an apparent drifter (“I think you have to have a job to be on vacation”), Mark Austin (Kip Pardue, The Rules of Attraction), who has ended up in Kure Beach (1999) with a personal mission to save the loggerhead turtles that lay their eggs there. He meets and is slowly befriended by George (Michael Kelly, Dawn of the Dead), a local who owns a very old-fashioned beachside motel. Both men are gay and Mark at first mistakes George’s kindness at giving him a room as a trade for sex and warns George upfront that he’s HIV positive. However, George is anything but a sexual opportunist, and what follows has less to do with sex than might be expected. (The film is very smart in recognizing that being gay is about a lot more than whom you sleep with.) For that matter, what Mark wants — what he’s found instinctively, as is his nature — is someone with maternal instincts.
In Eden (2000) we meet Elizabeth (Tess Harper) and the Rev. Robert Austin (Chris Sarandon), a solidly middle-class, traditionally (but not morbidly) conservative couple who at least seem overly concerned with the appearance of things. Are the new neighbors a gay couple? Can their rather free-spirited neighbor, Ruth (Ann Pierce, The Prince of Tides), be convinced to at least move her fig-leafless statue of David to the back yard? And so on. The couple also nurses a not-very-secret secret about an adopted son who ran away when they reacted badly to discovering his homosexuality.
In Asheville (2001), a woman, Grace Bellamy (Bonnie Hunt), living with her mother (Michael Learned) while recovering from a botched suicide attempt, is obsessing over the son she gave up for adoption years ago. She becomes determined to find him, despite the state’s sealed-records adoption law.
It’s not hard to figure out how these stories overlap, but that’s really a very minor point to a film that is rich in detail, characterization and its sense of place. Despite a fairly heavy dose of symbolism — for instance, a man with AIDS, who feels he was driven out of a town called Eden, seeks a kind of salvation in a place named Kure (that he thinks is pronounced “cure,” though it’s actually said like the seasoning, curry) — Loggerheads is a film largely made up of small details and suggestions that are presented without definitive answers, as well as flashes of revelations that may well slip past unnoticed.
Consider the implication of the scene where a young man in a flower shop asks Elizabeth about Mark. Is this an old boyfriend? Is he possibly even the person with whom Elizabeth caught Mark in an innocent boyhood tryst? Possibly, but not definitely. Is Rev. Robert quite as solid in his fundamentalist point of view as he generally seems? Then what about the moment in the barber shop where he watches a young boy get a haircut, or the choked-up, awkward pause in his sermon where he welcomes home those who have long been absent from church?
Mark is taken aback that George can live openly as a gay man in Kure Beach — something that suggests a greater degree of acceptance and tolerance than he thinks possible in this part of the world. But at the same time, even George has some doubts that his late boyfriend really drowned in a swimming accident, so some question of what lies beneath the surface remains.
In moments like these, Kirkman’s film truly soars and invites not unreasonable comparison with the far-more-high-profile Brokeback Mountain — for more reasons than just the gay connection. Both are films made up of buried emotions, longing and secrets, and both are built on small details. Both are also categorized as “gay films,” a label that’s both correct and incorrect at the same time.
Neither film would work without its gay content. Yet both are about much more. Not inaptly, Kirkman views Loggerheads as a family film; it’s very much about parents and children, and about families both traditional and nontraditional (if increasingly accepted).
Is Loggerheads perfect? No. There are a few awkward moments, but it’s a beautiful film — both physically and emotionally — with subtly powerful performances. I’ve seen it twice, and Iill be seeing it again. Don’t let this movie pass you by.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke