Sunset Story

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/06/05 17:19:24

"I won't say SEE THIS MOVIE NOW. But I'm glad someone made it."
3 stars (Just Average)

Sunset Story is a nice little movie. At seventy-three minutes in length, it's on the short end of features, and despite being filled with people holding strong opinions, it isn't out to convince its audience of anything. Director Laura Gabbert's documentary doesn't have a whole lot to say other than that Lucille and Irja were friends, even though they met extremely late in life. Knowing this probably won't change the way I see the world, but it's the sort of knowledge that does make one's life just the smallest bit better.

Lucille Alpert and Irja Lloyd are residents of a Los Angeles retirement home called "Sunset Hall" who arrived within two weeks of each other some years before. Founded in 1923, the institution's charter is to cater to the needs of elderly "free-thinkers". Lucille (95) and Irja (80) have both always been activists, and their minds are still sharp: Lucille devours multiple newspapers every morning, while Irja still takes herself to protests, wheelchair and all ("I was a teenager during the Great Depression and I'm still marching for the same things!"). We meet other residents of the home, with subtitles briefly describing what they did before retirement (Lucille was a social worker and Irja a special education teacher), and I suspect Ms. Gabbert originally intended to make a movie about aging radicals as a concept, only later deciding to focus on the friendship these two share.

Aside: One of the group in which I saw this movie expressed surprise that a former Marine would be one of the residents of this institution. I bring this up not to mock him, although I do find it ironic that the common definition of "free-thinker" apparently has ideological bounds. But, anyway, even if the actual story is not inherently political, there's going to be politics, and it's pretty much all going to be left of center. If you can't handle that, well, move along.

We get a little bit of history on Lucille and Irja, and a scant few old photographs. We meet a couple of their kids. For the most part, though, the movie is about them now (well, as of 2000, when the movie was shot). They've got different world-views, with Lucille seeming more cynical while Irja believes things can get better. Lucille is Jewish but non-practicing, and is somewhat annoyed at Irja's attempts to celebrate the Jewish holidays with her (especially since Irja is a Christian of Scandinavian descent). Irja's family is relatively local, while visits from Lucille's relatives are less frequent. Despite not always agreeing, they do like discussing the issues of the day, and are both still vital enough to go out to breakfast or to get their nails done, Lucille using a cane and Irja in her chair. It's clear that they're the best of friends, and Irja's tendency to ask if the two are "connected" rather than just whether Lucille has a hold on the chair is a symbol of their affection.

It's a nice little movie, occasionally seeming to lack focus when bits of the movie it started out as leak through - establishing shots pointedly highlighting the "Free Mumia" signs in residents' windows. In some ways, those parts are distracting - the movie Ms. Gabbert wound up making is about people finding their best friends at the end of their lives, not about their politics. But I like them anyway - it makes the movie specific, and it's easier to relate to individuals than types.

Sunset Story won't change your life. But it's interesting to know that a place like Sunset Hall exists, and that at least two of the residents were happier for their time there.

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