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May 16, 2019

Montclair Review: ‘Jules of Light and Dark’ Features Love, Longing, and a Sparse Narrative

Set deep in the heart of Texas, Daniel Laabs’ Jules of Light and Dark explores the landscape of recovery as an unlikely friendship is formed between college student Maya (Tallie Medel) and divorced oil worker Freddy (Robert Longstreet). Both are coming to terms with past baggage as Maya recovers from a breakup with Jules (Betsy Holt), a bi-sexual rave girl who is unfortunately not as well developed or as interesting as Maya and Freddy. Laab’s sparse narrative occasionally finds itself bogged down by too little exposition, relying heavily on the poetry of cinematographer Noe Medrano Jr.’s camera and the excellent, natural performances of Medel and Longstreet to do the heavy lifting. It’s a gamble that for the most part works well, even if too often repeats concepts and frames constantly. A favorite shot used too often is Medel’s Maya looking off into the distance, contemplating, a sunset or flashing neon behind her.

Driving back from a rave DJ-ed by mutual friend David (Jonathan Miles Howard), Jules and Maya wreck their car, leading to a prolonged period of rehabilitation. They were saved by passerby Freddy, an oil worker estranged from his kids and himself perhaps a bit curious although his queerness is never firmly established. Despite an ambiguous encounter, he simply could be longing for touch and a human connection. And thus is the theme of the picture as Maya finds herself drawn back to Jules as they complete their rehabilitation only to have her heart trampled on. Laabs’ direction allows for little catharsis: there is no yelling, screaming or crying as Maya’s life is shattered but rather she carries on, confused. After the break-up her distanced parents cruelly mail her a key to their house. Apparently, upon coming out, she was told she was no longer welcome at home.

Inspired by Maya, Freddie attempts to repair the damage he’s caused, re-entering into daughter Andrea’s (Liz Cardenas) life only to be shut out again. Meanwhile, Maya in a frank and powerful scene has her first quasi-sexual encounter with a male, David the DJ, likely because he reminds her of the good ol’ days with Jules. Spending the rest of the picture in waiting, Jules attempts to piece together her life with the help of Freddy as a semi-father figure.

With a deliberate rhythm, Jules of Light and Dark is at times maddening in the way that life is, and is perhaps too sparse a narrative in passages. While films like this can create space for intrigue and interpretation, the whole journey feels at times like a bit of a retread of more captivating independent films circa the 1990s. The narrative is guided by Maya, who doesn’t quite know what to make of her relationship with Jules as she confesses late in the film. Perhaps if we were to spend a little more time with Jules and Maya prior to heading to a small barn rave that investment might have paid off in the film’s climax. Jules of Light and Dark is a picture about longing and the process of self-discovery, yet by design, Maya remains an immensely private individual–even to the audience along for the journey.

Jules of Light and Dark screened at the Montclair Film Festival.

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