Loneliness is a universal condition. It begins as a notion that tickles in the back of our minds before drilling deep into the bones, settling in our soul. The shame is that one does not need to be alone to feel lonely, they need only lack a feeling of connection to someone else. This is the heart of co-writer and director Joshua Overbay’s Luke & Jo, a character study focused on two people in crisis as they navigate a critical point in their relative lives.
Screenwriter Luke (Erik Odom) is a finalist in the Asheville, North Carolina-based Ferrand International Film Festival’s writing competition for his new piece. Despite having no success before, he’s excited at the possibilities attending FIFF may bring for him, his wife Kate (Mary Katherine O’Donnell), and their daughter. Though supportive, Kate doesn’t want Luke to get too excited as things don’t always go as he expects. With this rattling in his brain, Luke heads to the festival and attempts to make some contacts. At the same time, singer Jo (co-writer Andie Morgenlander) travels into the city for a gig at the Atlantic, a big time venue promising unknown opportunities. After finding out that her father can’t attend, she spirals, arrives drunk, and is also too late to perform. Upset, Jo goes for a drive and nearly hits Luke crossing the street. In their shock at the shared experience, an unexpected bond of trust forms, leading them to discover within themselves something they’ve been too afraid to acknowledge.
Much of what powers Luke & Jo comes from Overbay’s direction which instils a constant sense of pressure from the moment it begins, wasting no time setting the tone for everything to come. First, it’s the tick-tick-tick of a clock until the audience first sees Luke, seemingly staring in anticipation, before we meet his wife, who is reading. The camera introduces them separately before revealing their shared space, divided by a table they sit on opposite ends of, their daughter playing in the distance, positioned in the middle. Visually, Overbay tells us everything we need to know about this couple before we know anything about them. They are distant yet desire closeness, possess different perspectives of value, and share a love of their daughter. This style of subtle visual storytelling is pervasive throughout Luke & Jo. For instance, so many directors would make a point to highlight the area in which the story is taking place, using various establishing shots to clearly define a location as it relates to the overall tone of the film, making it a key ingredient to the story. Yet, most of the film is shot in tight midrange or close-ups. What Overbay shows of the city is frequently blurred in the background, suggestive of two specific things: that this story could take place anywhere and that the internal is what matters, not the external. A location for the film isn’t cemented unless you recognize Pack Square, the Fine Arts Theatre, or other landmarks. If you don’t, it’s not given a name until a moment deep into the film thanks to an event poster visible behind Luke. This helps makes the story far more universal than insular. What Luke and Jo experience internally and externally is widely felt, transcending borders and language, so tying them to a specific time or place would be reductive to the impact of the film.
In addition to the interesting direction from Overbay, the story itself is also evocative. The narrative places two individuals before the audience to follow and root for, yet both are a bit broken. Luke is a writer who unconsciously puts his dreams of stardom ahead of his family’s needs. Jo is a singer whose relationship with alcohol complicates her waking life. Through dialogue and performances from Odom and Morgenlander convey that these are not bad people, but they’re not exactly healthy either. Some of this is due to desperation to succeed and an overwhelming sense of failure, but it’s mostly due to feeling disconnected. The audience isn’t shown what Luke’s life at home is like prior to leaving except for the small snippet at the start. His wife is shown as loving and supportive, yet realistic given past responses to her husband’s work. Odom’s physical response to their initial conversations channels all Luke’s regret and frustration from failure into a sense of smallness, plainly visible to the audience. We are witness to the loss of hope in his eyes as his wife speaks to him. It’s a look that returns when she drives him to the airport, when they speak on the phone later during the week, and before he leaves the festival. Similarly, Morgenlander beautifully communicates Jo’s more tangible struggle for connection as a coping response due to the continual disappointment her father brings into her life. She’s aware of her drinking and knows he’s a trigger, yet doesn’t seem interested in stopping. What makes this aspect of the story particularly interesting is how it avoids discussing the alcoholism. It should absolutely as it’s a central part of her character and a driving force behind many of the mistakes Jo makes, except much of what’s communicated through Luke & Jo isn’t explicitly stated. Instead, Overbay opts to use the negative space to carry the narrative, leaving certain aspects up to the audience to decipher for themselves.
One way to look at Luke & Jo is as an awakening, while others might want to call it a romance. However you perceive it, it’s clear that Overbay’s got a clear vision for the type of story he wants to tell and, in partnership with co-writer and performer Morgenlander, that story is as complete as possible without stretching into disbelief. The journey Luke and Jo undergo is deeply personal, sparking personal insight they were too frightened to confront on their own. This is certainly an excellent use of right-place, right-time, but it’s far more chaste and nuanced than your average romantic drama. In conjunction, the negative space, dialogue, and performances usher a sense of deep longing, that feeling of touch, but afraid to touch, to speak, but being afraid to break the silence, to move, but terrified of choice. Luke & Jo beautifully conveys the heartbreaking nature of our own crippling insecurities as the desire within us all to do better, to be better. If not for others, than for ourselves.
Luke & Jo is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital now. For information on how to acquire it, head to the official website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.