Loving is a nice movie. It is a very fucking nice movie, of the kind that shimmies on out when people are starting to sort out which films they want to give awards to, but which doesn't tend to receive any of those awards, except in a kind of pitying way. And nice movies are nice to have around, I guess, particularly nice movies with two incandescent lead performances, like the ones Loving has. None of this means that it's a particularly distinguished entry in the America Used To Be Racist But Fixed It genre, nor in the career of writer-director Jeff Nichols, who has peaked, I'm starting to think. At any rate, Loving is his most banal movie yet; rich with the thing he always gets right, a certain affectionate but unsentimental Southern regionalism, but without much else.

It is is a true story, Loving is; in fact, it's the kind of movie that only gets told because it's a true story, and it will make people feel good to know more about it, and not because the story is particularly well-suited to the requirements of storytelling. What happened is this: in 1958, Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) founder herself pregnant, and given that she was very much in love with the baby's father, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), and he with her, they decided to get married and a raise a family in peace and quiet. Unluckily for them, they lived in Caroline County, Virginia, a state which at this time had rigid anti-miscegenation laws, and Richard was white, while Mildred was African-American with some Cherokee and Rappahannock ancestry on top of it. They drifted up to Washington, D.C. to get married, but didn't really think it through that, in Virginia, a little bit of paper wasn't any sort of legal protection, and thus they ended up in jail. Released on the understanding that they'd leave the state for 25 years, they spent a few years back in Washington. Thereafter, the Lovings drifted in a dismal limbo for some years, until in 1964, they decided that enough was enough; Mildred sent a letter to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who forwarded her request on to the ACLU, and it was through this group that the Lovings' case was eventually heard in front of the Supreme Court. In June, 1967, the Court ruled unanimously that laws prohibiting certain marriages on the grounds of race were unconstitutional.

By all means, the Lovings were brave people and worthy of praise. That's not sufficient to make Loving a particularly interesting movie. The biggest stumbling block it faces is that nine-year time frame. The thing is, the Lovings might have lived a life of drama, but not really a dramatic life, if you catch my meaning. This is part of the charm, in fact: the film presents them as two people who are particularly happy to be alone with each other and their children, and as far as possible from the currents of history as they conceivably can be. We needn't be told by the boilerplate film-ending title card that they didn't like to call themselves heroic; that's incredibly obvious from the two very fine performances, and Nichols's tendency to focus on non-moments of the couple aimlessly inhabiting their home with quiet comfort. That part, at least, is great. Movies about Historical Events love that moment where the diegetic sound dies down for the strings and brass to start weeping triumphantly on the score as the characters embrace in slow-motion while surrounded by people cheering; Loving denies us any such moment. The Lovings weren't that kind of people (at one point, their main lawyer, played by an against-type Nick Kroll, is comically baffled why they don't want to go to the Supreme Court to hear their story told, and hear their children slandered by the opposing side as mixed-race bastards) and their story shouldn't have that kind of grandiosity. It's the closest the film ever comes to challenging its audience to remain true to the characters and their real-world antecedents in that way.

What it leaves us with, though, is a nine-year story that's mostly made up of things specifically not happening, and when things do happen, they do so away from the protagonists that Nichols virtually never departs from (when he does, to pick up some plot-important information from the ACLU lawyers, it's never particularly satisfying). That's a hard narrative to structure, and Loving never manages it; there are gaps and ellipses every which way you turn, some of which effectively convey the frustrating lack of concrete life that makes the Lovings' years in exile so maddening that these deeply insular people would go to such extremely public lengths to find justice, most of which simply serve to leap between the good parts as quickly as possible. Time is shapeless in Loving, to the movie's detriment; if you're not paying attention to certain lines of dialogue and don't immediately remember the dates that things happened in America in the 1960s, there's absolutely no awareness of time passing. That, in turn, makes the holes in the plot feel particularly annoying and distracting. Making things worse, neither Edgerton nor Negga is visibly aged throughout the movie, but have simply been cast as the oldest versions of their characters (Mildred was 27, and Richard was 33 at the time of the Court's decision; both actors are several years older than their characters, but it's believable in the "rural life and constant stress ages you faster" sense). And this harms the movie in other ways: that the Lovings' story begins as the impetuous choice of a 24-year-old and 18-year-old is not insignificant, but the characters never seem to be nearly that young, nor even a tiny bit naïve.

But all that being said, there's a great deal in Loving to admire, above and beyond its commitment to a more just society; for one thing, Nichols is a genius at evoking rural America and the pace of life of its inhabitants, which makes him unusually well-suited to directing a story about two people who so vigorously don't want anything but the relaxed, unmolested life of blue collar country folks. The film's best moments, such as its superb opening scene (a long, uncut close-up of Negga slowly sidling through the reveal that she's pregnant), are languid and character-driven in a way that makes Loving a pleasurable depiction of how a certain culture and certain personality types interact, whatever its limitations as a story. And to help carry that off, it's worth reiterating that Negga and Edgerton are both incredibly good; she's a bit more accessibly so (Richard is, as a character, so quick to shut himself off that much of Edgerton's performance seems flat and cold until we figure out what he's doing), with much that goes unsaid except by what she turns to look at, and when. She always makes sure to remain a blank slate for everybody but the camera, which alone captures her weary, worried face, and which primes us to hear the tremulousness hiding beneath her muted line deliveries. It's quite a lovely bit of intimate screen acting - Edgerton's curt edges make him less intimate, but no less well-observed and insightful - and that's definitely a strong point in Loving's favor. It works so much better as a character sketch than as a message movie about history that it's frustrating as all hell that it keeps half-heartedly feinting in the latter direction. That's not what the film is good at, and not, apparently, what anybody making it cared about; the result is a film that's intermittently quite moving, when it's not too damn busy ticking off the boxes to be minimally socially progressive Oscarbait.