In her latest film, Thou Wast Mild & Lovely, writer-director Josephine Decker taps into the darkness of human nature and draws on her own romantic past in a dream-like exploration of sexuality and tragedy. The film, which will screen at the Sarasota Film Festival, follows a young man named Akin (Joe Swanberg) through an eventful summer in the hills of Kentucky as a hired hand on an isolated farm inhabited only by a young woman (Sophie Traub), a grizzled old man (Robert Longstreet) and a host of bug-infested livestock. Behind an idyllic facade, as suspicions emerge and a troubling attraction grows, the old farm comes alive with loyalties and dangers as murky as the rolling fog that surrounds it.
Born amidst a relationship she describes laughingly as “intense” and an influential encounter with Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Thou is, at its heart, romantic, but it’s a romance steeped in terror. Love, sex and lust blur into one as seemingly ephemeral connections lay their chains and paradise gives way to a place of stark consequence. “It’s a pretty dark love story but my own love stories have been pretty dark,” Decker says with a hint of humor. “I think I’m still learning to write my happy endings.”
It is a film that defies genre or, as Decker puts it, is a magical-realism-romcom-mumblecore-western-with-horror mixture. Fittingly, it is a film in which imagery is as fundamental as narrative and the silence says as much as the dialogue. “Silence is loud. It’s powerful,” says Decker. “There’s a lot of room for the audience to create the story with the artist.” An admittedly taciturn child, Decker understands the value of quiet and uses it to transform her viewers into active observers.
Working with a minimal cast, the location itself becomes as much a character as any of the actors. A simple house, a barn, a gravel drive and a split-rail fence – the farm is a classic archetype made alternatingly welcoming and foreboding, depending on the angle of Decker’s camera. The farm is an institution close to the director’s heart, some of whose fondest childhood memories are of time spent in the country with her family. She acknowledges this affection and its influence on her artistic choices and penchant for natural imagery. Not surprisingly, some of Decker’s aspirations include working with National Geographic on a story told from an animal’s perspective and a hybrid farm/artist’s retreat where occupants will tend the farm by day and create by night.
And though Decker is already mulling over her next film, something “organic” built more from sound and imagery than conventional plot, something “action-oriented” and “improvised,” she says she’s ready for the Sarasota Film Festival and a chance to relax. “I’m really looking forward to partying and celebrating not just my film, but a bunch of films,” says Decker. “I was looking at the schedule and I thought ‘I want to see all of those.’”
Thou Wast Mild & Lovely will screen twice in Theater 8 at the Sarasota Film Festival: April 11 at 7:15pm and April 12 at 7pm.