History isn’t only shaped by extraordinary individuals—sometimes, it’s made by people trying to mind their own business. Loving, writer-director Jeff Nichols’s film about the couple behind Loving vs. Virginia—the 1967 Supreme Court case that struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage—can sometimes be too muted for its own good, but that modest, poignant idea powers this true-life drama. The further you step away from the film, the more this idea starts to gather emotional force. Lots of great men and women forcefully plunge into their destinybut what happens to those who didn’t plan on making a fuss, but run into the headwinds of change anyway?
The movie recounts the romantic complications that befell Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), a mixed-race couple living in rural Virginia in the 1950s who decide to marry after learning of Mildred’s pregnancy. Since the Commonwealth of Virginia won’t recognize mixed-race marriage, they travel to Washington, D.C. to sign the license and arrive home only to be swiftly thrown in jail. Their sympathetic lawyer (Bill Camp) convinces the judge to give them a suspended sentence: Richard and Mildred can stay married, but they have to leave Virginia, unable to return together for 25 years.
For some, this would have been a frustrating but tolerable outcome, but Mildred becomes convinced over the years that they can’t raise their three children in a big city. She misses her family back home—the plea deal feels more like a banishment than an opportunity to start a life. Help comes in the form of an attorney (Nick Kroll) hired by the ACLU to fight their conviction. He thinks he can take it all the way to the Supreme Court, doing away with a cruel anti-miscegenation law in the process.
There are no shocking twists, no grand speeches, no big actorly moments in Loving, which is in keeping with Nichols’s previous spare films. From Shotgun Stories to Midnight Special, he has made exceedingly smart and sneakily emotional indies that flirt with specific genres without ever succumbing to their clichés. With that in mind, Loving could be thought of as his take on Oscar-bait awards drama: It’s a true story in which love triumphs over hate, striking a blow for racial intolerance and showing how far we’ve come as a society.
It’s to Nichols’s credit that he resists the hoarier tendencies of this kind of film. In fact, he may do so to a fault. Loving has no patience for sweeping sentimentality or feel-good liberalism, but his storytelling is almost undernourished. Nichols follows the couple over the course of about a decade, monitoring how they react to obstacles put in their way. Neither of the Lovings is particularly demonstrative, and the legal wranglings that occur in the film’s final third aren’t presented with much suspense or intrigue. Richard and Mildred just want to live their lives—it’s almost as if they never wanted a movie to be made about them—and Nichols is doing his best to stay out of the way.
Other filmmakers might fetishize this stripped-down tale, fascinated with the minutiae of the Lovings’ world and the particulars of their lawyers’ journey to the Supreme Court. But Loving isn’t a film about process: Nichols crafts his story with an eye to making its commonness resonate with subtle moral outrage. The Lovings aren’t meant to seem unique—or even that dramatically engaging—precisely because that’s what offends Nichols so much about their plight. Poorly educated, working-class and without any connections to political power, they’re exactly the type of people that easily get swept away by unfair laws they have no means to fight. To a certain extent, Richard and Mildred have come to understand that they can’t hope to change their circumstances. The best they can do is cope with them.
There are limits to Nichols’ strategy, however. Even with its steady and confident approach to filmmaking, Loving can’t help but feel over-abundantly tasteful. It would be inaccurate to say nothing happens in the film, but there’s so little gradation in the slow-burn drama that the Lovings’ stiff-upper-lip resilience can feel to when loved ones suffer silently without taking action. Nichols won’t stoop to the emotional manipulation of award-season movies, but his earlier films, particularly Take Shelter, highlight how he can wring pathos and suspense from the simplest of setups. By comparison, the stately reserve of Loving can sometimes seem like a defensive crouch, a way of safeguarding against making a derided kind of movie without necessarily coming up with an inspired alternative.
That said, the lead performances speak to this limitation while also demonstrating how actors can bring their own grace notes to the proceedings. What’s unmistakable in Loving is that Richard and Mildred are not educated people, but that doesn’t mean they are stupid. Edgerton and Negga do fine work portraying decent, honorable countryfolk who aren’t gifted orators, able to articulate their anguish in evocative language. This is immensely tricky—it requires the actors to avoid treating the couple as simpletons or saints—and yet the duo skillfully suggests the Lovings’ inability to fully appreciate what’s happening to them. Edgerton’s Richard is a gruff man who barely speaks whole sentences, preferring to say as much with a glare as with words. Negga’s Mildred is warmer and lovelier, but she’s exceedingly docile in a way that, sadly, feels learned. As a black woman who only feels comfortable around those of her own race, she’s developed a talent for being respectful around the judgmental whites she meets out in the world. It’s telling that Nichols and his cast don’t even worry about explaining Richard and Mildred’s bond: They love each other, and that’s enough.
If Nichols’ four previous films proved him a master of weaving small-scale drama rich with life and everyday insights, Loving is a bit of a letdown, only because it can’t quite elevate the material to something equally transcendent. But this isn’t to say its isn’t an effectively touching film in its own right. When frequent Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon shows up in a cameo to play a LIFE photographer, his dialed-down performance suggests the wealth of compassion any right-minded person would feel toward the Lovings. The movie’s final shot is quietly crushing, recalling both an earlier scene and one of Loving’s visual motifs, neither of which you may have realized were that meaningful until they come back here in the end. In its conclusion, Loving makes its finest argument: What can seem like an unremarkable life to those on the outside means a whole lot more when it’s the only one you’ve got.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site