Jules of Light and Dark and A Dim Valley proudly bare rainbow shades over subtly plotted rural American narratives. They both deserve a spotlight. Featuring nuanced performances from Robert Longstreet—an indie darling whose star has steadily risen—you have to ask yourself, why aren’t these indie gems on more people’s radar?
Longstreet’s talent graces recent tent poles such as Doctor Sleep and Halloween Kills but his real “shine” comes when playing mournful loners, and delivering heartfelt monologues. This is where his voice resonates deepest, in deliberately paced scenes with ample room to mourn, like Mr. Dudley in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House (from Mike Flanagan, the director of Dr. Sleep and Midnight Mass). Even better are Longstreet’s long buried indies like A Dim Valley where he recounts a traumatic childhood memory of wood sprites left slayed, a hauntingly dim portrait of an unaccepting father. (In full disclosure here, Robert played the lead in my own buried indie, The Missing Girl, back in 2015.)
Daniel Laabs’ Jules of Light and Dark is one of those rare treats that feels more like world cinema than an American indie. In this case, the narrative highlights a forgotten country called rural America. The title alone deserves analysis because, although Jules (Betsy Holt) makes an impression, she is a smaller character in a story about finding love in rusty new places. Freddy, a passerby played by Longstreet, anchors the story. It’s he and Maya (Tallie Medel) who meander about the sad backdrop of Texas searching for acceptance in a place that still harbors shame for same sex partners. They have much in common, both estranged for being queer. Jules, bi, is unable to give Maya her full devotion so she too wanders elsewhere. Freddy, an oil worker, is not just roving physically, but also emotionally adrift. He never fully connects with his younger colleague, Luis (Rafael Villegas), even after a one night tryst that on the surface seems to have legs. Instead, it’s a newly adopted dog that delivers intimacy for him, and maybe to some extent Maya, who he helps rehabilitate after a car accident. Layered on this, his failed marriage has left ruins of any positive fatherhood imprint he might’ve had, so Maya becomes his surrogate daughter of sorts.
There’s lyrical moments in a nightclub where Maya and Jules hang with a DJ (Jonathan Miles Howard) dancing the night away, either high on Molly, or confused by Jule’s awkward threesome. Particularly hypnotic is the pulse, the subdued score by Brent Sluder, and the dazzling lensing from Noe Medrano, contrasting retro pinks and cyan against the earthy hues of the oily Texas backdrop.
While Jules took home a handful of prizes among notable LGBTQ+ fests—and can be found on Showtime—A Dim Valley barely got a deserving ovation. It’s directed by Brandon Colvin who cast Robert in another underrated gem, Sabbatical. Dim was described to me as a trans gay fairytale. Hmm, that’s not a bad summary, but there’s much more to it than that. At times it reminds of Longstreet’s earlier Sundance sleeper, Septien, with its own queer themes, and rare birds huddled around a campfire. But unlike Septien, in Dim he plays it straight (or so I think) as a depressed biologist named Clarence. His two gay students—played with conviction by Whitmer Thomas and Zach Weintraub—test his patience. Things get a bit weird when three dryads come out of the woods channeling a colorful glam vibe. It’s here where I find myself recalling the opening credits, rich textbook field illustrations of nature’s diverse beauty. The tree nymphs bring lovely levity (and sexual energy) to an otherwise repressed cabin-in-the-woods gathering.
What’s most unexpected here is the resolution, tying back to an ominous tarot card reading that follows what might be Longstreet’s best and most vulnerable scene to date, the melancholy monologue mentioned above. Could these be the same pixies he so sadly recalls? I invite you to see for yourself—that is, if you’re lucky enough to find it.