When you’re young, your first serious relationship can feel like a new world has been unlocked and life suddenly seems more vibrant than before. When that relationship begins to sour, or even turn toxic, it’s like being trapped in a slowly shrinking bubble. Only once you’re out do you realize the enormous naiveté of having placed all your hopes of happiness in another person.
Anyone who’s known that kind of codependency may very well walk away moved by writer-director Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, a gorgeous coming-of-age story that’s hard not to read as autobiographical. Toxic relationships have been the focus of countless films, but rarely with such authenticity and even less often presented in the form of fragmented memories, faint and loosely assembled.
Honor Swinton Byrne (daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also plays her mother here) stars as Julie, a 25-year-old film school student during the early ‘80s who’s hoping to jumpstart her career with a documentary about the blue-collar citizens of Sunderland, England. As is the case with many young artists, she’s idealistic and believes the best way to speak truth in her art is by depicting those less privileged than herself. Of course, she’s too inexperienced and privileged to say anything meaningful about her subjects.
When she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), their easygoing friendship gradually transforms into an intense romance. Julie sees her new boyfriend through the rose-colored glasses love can bestow upon us — viewing him as a mature, confident intellectual. From the audience’s outside perspective, it’s apparent his confidence is more like condescending arrogance, and the fact he’s a heroin addict doesn’t help matters.
A common complaint lobbed against The Souvenir has stemmed from people just not buying why an intelligent woman like Julie would choose to stay in a relationship with someone as pompous and troubled as Anthony. That criticism overlooks the point Hogg is trying to make about young love and one’s inability to accept how damaging his or her partner might be. At times, watching the film can be intentionally maddening, such as a scene where Julie goes from being rightfully upset at Anthony for stealing from her to, by the end of their conversation, pleading for his forgiveness.
The Souvenir’s structure might prove irritating for those who can’t identify with its premise. Hogg tells her story as a series of half-formed memories, many of which pass with seemingly little incident. When we reflect back on significant periods of our lives, rarely do we dwell on sweeping, dramatic moments; often it’s the smaller instances that reside in our memory. The film might not show us Julie and Anthony’s first big fight but instead the mundane conversation they had in bed the next morning. The lovely digital haze of the cinematography further complements the elusive tone, as well as the abrupt ways in which scenes end.
The movie’s real power lies in its leads, Byrne in particular. As Julie, she gives a remarkable performance, especially considering this is her film debut (excluding a brief appearance in 2009’s I Am Love). The actress accomplishes a lot with very little, letting her facial expressions and timid body language do most of the work, and crafts a remarkably grounded performance. Byrne has a vulnerable openness in her facial features that makes her a natural fit for acting. Burke is similarly understated as Anthony, never overdoing his passive-aggressive behavior or turning him into a villain.
Your reaction to something as deeply personal and formally unconventional as The Souvenir will largely depend on the past experiences you bring with you. It is decidedly not for all tastes, yet those it connects with will be rewarded with an intensely relatable glimpse into the painful mistakes that forge the path towards adulthood.