One of the first images in the film “Nostalgia” is of an heirloom necklace dangling on the neck of a diner waitress. One of the last images is of a massive puffy cloud, ever shifting in the wide sky.
Between these symbols of permanence and flux is a deeply meditative movie about time, loss and the stuff we fiercely hold onto along the way. “Nostalgia” is thoughtful and lyrical, an unrushed poem with a first-rate cast.
Directed by Mark Pellington with a screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, the film is a mosaic of interconnected stories, linking a grizzled grandfather (Bruce Dern), an insurance assessor (John Ortiz), a widow (Ellen Burstyn), a memorabilia dealer (Jon Hamm) and his family (including Catherine Keener as his sister).
Ortiz’s patient, empathetic assessor is the glue that connects the first two characters we meet, the first of which is the grandfather, whose home is filled with personal mementos that are priceless to him but junk to anyone else.
His pregnant granddaughter — the second pregnant woman we see, stressing history and lineage — wants to know everything’s value. But what is the price of memories, of old love letters, of a life lived? When the assessor wants to take a picture of the grandfather, he shoots back, “I’m not a relic.”
The assessor next visits the widow, whose house has burned down and whom he meets in the sooty remains of the place she’s called home for decades. She had a split second during the fire to save as much as she could and, after grabbing jewelry, snatched her husband’s prized baseball.
That ball leads Burstyn to Hamm as she debates what to do with an object that meant so much to her husband but so little to her. It’s just a thing, so why does it have such a gravitational pull? If she sells it her future is secure, but her family’s connection to it is severed. “You won’t remember me,” she tells the collector.
Hamm’s character, as you might guess, is not wistful when it comes to things. He buys and sells artifacts for a living, after all, and is unsentimental, even when he goes to help his sister clean out his childhood home. When she complains there are so many memories attached to the home, he curtly responds, “Make new ones.”
It’s at this point — roughly halfway through “Nostalgia ” — when things take a tragic turn and the memorabilia dealer must soon confront his own callous views of mementos. This painful detour into profound grief threatens to warp the film, unbalance it — but stick with it. Hamm’s character is redeemed in a dumpster.
In terms of acting, the fact that Burstyn once more offers a complex, haunted heroine is no surprise. But everyone here is excellent. Ortiz delivers a slightly magical paper-pusher, Keener is a woman broken by sadness as we watch helplessly, and Hamm is as stoic outside as he is broken inside. Some tiny roles are made to sparkle in the hands of Nick Offerman, Patton Oswalt, James Le Gros, Annalise Basso and Mikey Madison.
Much of “Nostalgia” is shot as in a quiet dream, often lingering in the dark shadows. The camera never captures key dramatic events — that house fire, for example — but rather the immediate aftereffects. It never flashes back, as you might expect in a film about memories, but instead lingers on the faces of actors as they process emotions or focuses on simple items that hold intense meaning, like keychains.
It sometimes takes on the quality of a play, especially in several thought-provoking monologues. But there are also cinematic touches, like a gauzy trip to Las Vegas. “Nostalgia” is not a perfect film, but it is moving and sensitive. You leave with your head in the clouds and a new view of your precious stuff.