How much does an object weigh? Not the physical weight, but the emotional weight? A box full of papers could be junk to one person, and to another the last tangible link to a lost loved one.
The poignant drama “Nostalgia” ruminates on the weight of objects in the lives of several characters. Directed by Mark Pellington and written by Alex Ross Perry, the film is a throwback to the “hyperlink” dramas of the 2000s like “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing” and “Crash,” which brought different storylines and characters under a common theme.
We first meet an insurance agent, Daniel (John Ortiz) who acts as a sort of benevolent therapist for his clients as he evaluates their belongings. His first customer is a cranky old man, Ronald (Bruce Dern), happily surrounded by a house full of bric-a-brac. He knows it’s mostly garbage, and he’s fine with having it all thrown away after he’s gone. It all only matters to him, and will die with him.
At the other end of the spectrum is the agent’s other client, a widow named Helen (Ellyn Burstyn) who has lost literally everything in a house fire, except for the clothes on her back and a baseball owned by her late husband. The baseball means nothing to her, but because it meant everything to her husband, she struggles with what to do with it.
Eventually she takes it to the next link in the narrative chain, a Las Vegas sports memorabilia dealer, Will (Jon Hamm). We assume Will is going to cheat her, but he’s surprisingly kind and gentle. He knows the value of objects to other people, even if it’s just dollars and cents to him.
In the final section of the film, Will goes back to his hometown to clean out his parents’ house now that they’ve retired to Florida. He wants to toss everything in a dumpster, but his sister Donna (Catherine Keener) is reluctant to part with any of it.
Meanwhile, Donna’s college-bound daughter, who keeps her life on her phone, doesn’t even understand why people would save physical stuff in the first place. A final, tragic turn in the story forces Will to rethink his relationship with objects.
“Nostalgia” is an actor’s showcase, giving each of the performers a chance to shine and deliver a long soliloquy, often directly into the camera. Burstyn is the highlight as a woman utterly unmoored from a life she thought was settled. She’s grieving and fearful, but strangely liberated. Hamm is also very strong as an ordinary middle-aged guy, equally set in his ways, who finds those ways unexpectedly challenged.
Perry is known for writing acerbic indies like “Listen Up Philip” and “The Color Wheel,” so he seems like an odd choice to write something this potentially sentimental. But the commitment to honesty and clarity in the writing helps keep the film from tipping into bathos. Pellington sustains the film’s meditative mood, creating a fluid rhythm as the story moves from person to person, object to object, laying the groundwork for its moving climax.
“Nostalgia” is not the film you want to watch before cleaning out the basement, as it forces the viewer to reconsider the power of those things we’ve held onto for so long. Are they extra weight that drag along with us in our lives, or are they physical evidence that the life was lived? The movie has no easy answers, but lots of thoughtful questions.