At the 2014 Nashville Film Festival I had the pleasure of seeing the Tennessee premiere of “As It Is In Heaven,” the feature-directing debut of Joshua Overbay. In my review I called the picture a “fine example of strong contemporary cinema from truly independent American filmmakers.” Overbay and his colleagues in “Luke and Jo,” his third feature, have a similar success.
This modestly budgeted drama, shot in and around a wintry Asheville, N.C. and making film festival rounds this past year before relases today on Amazon Prime and Vimeo, may stir viewer memories of such films as Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” or Sofia Coppola’s “Lost In Translation“; “Luke and Jo” revolves around the profound connection two strangers can make when circumstance throws them together. But it would be unfairly reductive to say this film merely plays a riff on that well-known tune; the truism that’s it often easier to open up to a stranger than to a friend, lover or family member was mined for story-telling gold long before the advent of movies, and those two previous films (among many others) have no monopoly on that kernel of truth.
The Luke of the title (played with still-waters-run-deep intensity by Erik Odom) is a struggling but apparently still idealistic screenwriter whose wife (Mary Katherine O’Donnell) desperately wants to trade her husband’s dreams for bill-paying realities in their young family. But Luke’s not giving up just yet – he pins his hopes on finding someone to buy his script at a film festival. While there, he runs into Andie Morgenlander‘s Jo (well, she almost quite literally runs into him). Jo is a gifted singer with her own troubles, and their meeting gives us pause to wonder whether their encounter will offer saving grace or seal their mutual self-destruction.
Overbay and the actors had a script (penned by Overbay, whose own experiences as a budding filmmaker included a finalist nod for the 2009 Student Academy Awards, and Morgenlander, who was also costumer and an executive producer for the production) that painted “Luke and Jo” in structured strokes but left room for improvisation with dialogue, movement and gestures. That improvisation, coupled with Lauren Argo‘s satisfyingly straight-forward production design, some go-with-the-flow camera work by cinematographer/producer Nathaniel Glass and camera operator Aaron Holmes as well as drama editing with a documentary touch by Sam Webb, gives this contemporary fiction a bracing dose of realism.
Morgenlander’s Jo is more demonstrative than Odom’s Luke, but she’s as adept an actor at subtle shadings and non-verbal intensity as Odom. The supporting players (including Shannon Walsh as Jo’s sad-eyed aunt and Michael MacCauley as every aspiring screenwriter’s worst Hollywood nightmare) all fit well into their roles, as if Overbay just found the right people on the street and promptly brought them into the scene – no artifice desired or transpired.
Enhancing but thankfully never intruding on this believable snapshot of souls is the beautiful ebb and flow of John Thomas‘ pulsating score. And kudos also go to Robert Gowan, who did some first-rate sound design/editing work.
“Luke and Jo” mirrors life’s messiness and uncertainty as these two broken angels seek to repair their wings. Do they succeed? I won’t answer that and spoil the experience. But Overbay and his ensemble, in front of and behind the cameras, take us on a 90-minute journey through the pain and peace of human connection that’s worth the trip.
In addition to today’s (June 14) releases on Amazon Prime and Vimeo “Luke and Jo” plays today at the Northeast Mountain Film Festival in Dillard, Ga. and on Sunday at the Row House Cinema in Pittsburgh, Pa. For more information on screenings and release info stay updated by liking the film’s Facebook page.