Movie business trends come and go, but one subject remains resolutely out of favor: romantic stories focused on those considered old and in the way.
Which is why it's such a pleasure to see 81-year-old Robert Redford and 79-year-old Jane Fonda playing age-appropriate characters in the charming and emotionally involving "Our Souls at Night."
Not only might they be the most genuinely old couple since 79-year old Melvyn Douglas co-starred with Lila Kedrova in Lee Grant's 1980 "Tell Me a Riddle," but they're also deeply invested in their characters.
Given that Redford and Fonda have costarred with each other three previous times, starting with "The Chase" half a century ago, this is perhaps not a surprise, but it's still satisfying to see how deftly these two play off each other.
Adapted by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber from Kent Haruf's exquisitely crafted novella, the last thing he wrote before he died in 2014 at the age of 71, "Our Souls" is such an outlier that only Netflix had the temerity to finance it, meaning its big screen theatrical life will be limited.
This despite having the additional benefit of being directed by Ritesh Batra, whose wonderful "The Lunchbox" might have won the foreign language Oscar if India had had the wit to nominate it.
Batra's natural restraint as a director, combined with the integrity of Haruf's narrative — set, as always, in the fictional town of Holt, Colo. — insures that "Our Souls" surprises you with its periodic bite and heft.
Some of the novel's moments have been quietly softened for film purposes, but the essence of the project remains very much the same, as do the characters of Louis Waters and Addie Moore.
It's Redford's widower Louis we meet first, as the actor, especially effective in one of his quietest roles, shows us an undemonstrative man, a plaid shirt and jeans kind of guy, who is not especially happy to hear a knock on his front door one night.
It is of course Addie, a widow who has lived a block away on Cedar for decades, and a woman who was good friends with Louis' late wife. She seems nervous, and, as it turns out, not without reason.
"I want to suggest something to you, a proposal of sorts," she says, Fonda perfectly nailing the awkwardness. "Would you be interested in coming over and sleeping with me."
Addie is not, she rushes to assure an astonished Louis, suggesting sex. It's talk and companionship she is after, a way to get through the ever-longer nights. "Would that," she asks, "be something of interest to you?"
Louis is, of course, stunned by the suggestion, and asks for time to think it over. The next day he makes one of his regular stops, a breakfast get-together with a group of fellow codgers led by the acerbic Dorlan Becker (a spot-on Bruce Dern), an event that seems so dead-end that Louis calls Addie and says he will be coming over.
Come over he does, carrying his pajamas and toothbrush in a brown paper bag and using the back door so as not to excite gossip. There's a wonderful wariness about both Louis and Addie in this first scene at her house, as they wonder if this is indeed a good idea.
As one night extends to others, it is a real pleasure to experience this particular drama unfold. Addie and Louis in essence relive their lives to each other, talking about traumatic events like deaths and affairs and opening up to each other to an extent that surprises them both. "You can tell me anything," Addie says, and that turns out to be the theme of their increasing closeness.
Once that closeness becomes public knowledge, additional dramas unfold, ranging from the reaction of the townspeople (who really don't know what's going on) to that of Louis' daughter Holly (Judy Greer) and, more critically, Addie's antagonistic son Gene.
Strongly played by Matthias Schoenaerts, convincingly hostile as always, Gene is having troubles in his own marriage, so much so that he leaves his 7-year-old son Jamie (Iain Armitage) with grandmother Addie for an extended period, something which adds yet another twist to her relationship with Louis.
It's a tribute to how dexterously "Our Souls" explores all aspects of this relationship that some of the film's best moments don't depend on dialogue, like a silent scene in a pickup truck (so good it's used in the trailer) scored by Etta James' knockout version of "A Sunday Kind of Love."
Made with care and conviction as it explores this unexpected relationship, "Our Souls at Night" understands both what changes in people as they age and what remains the same.
It covers quite a bit of emotional territory, and it covers it well.
"Our Souls at Night"
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: iPic Westwood; iPic Pasadena