Brandon Colvin’s A Dim Valley is a tough film to categorize. It’s not quite a comedy, or a drama, or a fantasy, though it contains elements of all those genres. It’s a surreal take on mid-2000s mumblecore, replete with awkward humor and fumbling romantic entanglements, with enough pathos added to give the movie some necessary heft. It’s slight but sweet, and its LGBTQ-centric tale of love—both thwarted and newly discovered—lends a unique perspective to a corner of the indie film universe usually reserved for neurotic white guys and manic pixie dream girls, the latter of which Colvin employs in cleverly literal fashion.
Biologist Clarence (Robert Longstreet) and his two assistants, Albert (Whitmer Thomas) and Ian (Zach Weintraub), are spending the summer doing research at a cabin in the woods. The depressive Clarence has little patience with his students, particularly Albert, who seems more interested in goofing off and getting high than taking soil samples. Ian is the more focused of the pair, but isn’t above shenanigans with Albert, his big crush. When Albert runs into a trio of cute hippie backpackers (Rosalie Lowe, Rachel McKeon and Feathers Wise), he brings them back to the cabin. The girls get these aimless men to open up to each other, sparking inspiration and self-actualization.
The three girls—Lowe’s wide-eyed Iris, McKeon’s ultra-sensitive Rose and Wise’s earthy Reed—serve as manic pixie dream girls who it’s suggested may be actual pixies (or, in this case, Dryads). They show up with the specific purpose of helping the three men straighten themselves out. Fortunately, the goal is a little more interesting here, with the women using their quirky, freewheeling natures to get Ian and Albert together, and help Clarence re-engage with some long-buried pain from his past.
Colvin keeps things light, with dialogue and idiosyncratic editing that owes a lot to Joe Swanberg and quite a bit to Gregg Araki and Wes Anderson. Thomas is charmingly doofy as Albert, and Weintraub brings awkward yearning to Ian. Longstreet, however, comes off as the most layered and polished of the ensemble, imbuing Clarence with gradually revealed desires and regrets that help us understand why he is who he is. Clarence seems to be making those discoveries about himself right alongside us, and Longstreet gives that journey the space and vulnerability it needs to feel real.
A Dim Valley sometimes feels a little too ethereal to really stick, often more interested in drifting around from interaction to interaction than in telling a cohesive story. Its overall arc, however, is sweet and empathetic. Colvin and his actors clearly seem to know the relationships between and backstories of these characters, even if those stories aren’t explicitly shared onscreen. Much like its three mystical lady backpackers, this is a dreamy movie that doesn’t necessarily leave a big impact, but makes a pleasant impression all the same.
“A Dim Valley” is out Friday in limited release.