“I don’t think dreams mean much,” Wayland (Pablo Schreiber) tells Dolores (Jena Malone) in “Lorelei,” just after she’s just described one of hers. They used to have big enough ones to share during their high school days, but after Dolores imagines a recurring fantasy of treading water, likely connected to the talent she once showed for swimming professionally, she acknowledges that dreaming’s impossible when you can’t sleep, and Wayland, only weeks removed from serving a 15-year prison stretch, hasn’t been able to get much of it.
You keep thinking something bad is going to happen in “Lorelei,” but Sabrina Doyle’s finely observed drama is all the more compelling when you realize the worst already has, with Wayland finding his way back to Dolores when he had no plans to see her again after his incarceration. She had three kids in the years since – the now 15-year-old Dodger (Chancellor Perry), the 12-year-old Periwinkle (Amelia Borgerding), and the six-year-old Denim (Parker Pascoe-Sheppard), all curiously named after different shades of blue, and he emerges from jail as about as much of a model citizen as you could ask for when their paths cross at Coloton Lutheran Church where he’s been staying in the basement as a halfway house and she attends a support group. The two quickly make up for lost time romantically, but Doyle provocatively asks can they in other respects as Wayland gingerly reintegrates into civilian life and unexpectedly finds himself taking on the role of being a dad to Dolores’ three kids, a responsibility he is alternately excited and frustrated by when he feels they should’ve been his in the first place.
Beautifully acted by Schreiber and Malone, “Lorelei” separates itself early from how such stories of reacclimatization typically go, envisioning the film’s Pacific Northwest setting as a place where things grow rather than linger on the stormy weather. It isn’t only the casually sprightly color palette that tips off that Doyle is up to something different than engaging with tired questions of whether Wayland will fall back into bad habits or not, instead giving a strong sense of why he was drawn to them in the first place when opportunities on the outskirts of Portland are limited and even cautious spending can lead to being unable to afford a modest birthday present for the kids if $30 is misplaced. Hardship really does build character in “Lorelei,” where a wry sense of humor becomes necessary to deal with things and there’s plenty of ingenuity in what parts of their life that Wayland and Dolores do have some control over, making do with what few resources they have.
Nothing feels forced in Doyle’s feature debut, which is constantly enlivened by small, attentive details that never fail to pay off. Even a series of lightly fantastical callbacks to Dolores’ dream that seems to pull audiences away at first from the strong sense of reality the writer/director to create in the rest of the film comes to a satisfying conclusion, and for a film that takes place almost entirely in the present with characters who refreshingly don’t waste too much energy on the past, she summons how much it weighs on them without ever being heavy-handed, knowing there’s incredible power between the intricate performances of her leads and simple glances at all the reminders around for the characters of being stuck in the same life while they’ve fundamentally changed. When the act of simply being there in the moment is shown to be so meaningful, “Lorelei” proves to be exceptionally moving.