The Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PӦFF) runs in-person in Tallinn, Estonia, from November 3 to 19. Joshua Polanski will be reviewing for Midwest Film Journal live from Estonia as part of his multi-outlet coverage of the festival. Be sure to check out his website for updates on additional coverage.
An unphased celebration of tender masculinity and a dissection of grief, All of Us Strangers features what is bound to be one of the best performances of the year — from Andrew Scott as Adam, a man who mysteriously encounters his parents although they died many years ago. Scott’s performance alone is worth the investment of time and money even as the film doesn’t quite work as a whole.
Based on Taichi Yamada’s novel Strangers (and previously adapted in 1988 as The Discarnates by famed House director Nobuhiko Obayashi), Andrew Haigh’s adaptation (Weekend, 45 Years) replaces Yamada’s heterosexual couple with a male same-sex couple. After a trip to his childhood home, Adam encounters a couple younger than himself (played by Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) — a couple that we soon learn are actually his parents, who died in a car wreck in the 1980s when Adam was merely a kid. The supernatural intervention in Adam’s life comes shortly after he spawns a new relationship with his drunk and flirty neighbor, Harry (Paul Mescal), a mysterious, angelic ghost of a man.
The short introductory message from Haigh talks about the theme and power of love, a message hard to miss in the film itself. The love is a strange love, though. Adam has a series of charged conversations about his sexuality with the ghost-memories of his parents, people who are truly of their time. These scenes, as well as those of Adam and Harry together, completely fill the screen with skin: faces, hands, bodies, all of which emphasize the physical and sexual nature of humanity. Post-coming out, Adam’s love is an instantly transformative love. He makes his father and mother people of the modern world, which is to say he makes them capable of queer acceptance and same-sex relationships (though they do so only with slight discomfort).
Because his parents aren’t real and are only figments of Adam’s imagination, this isn’t really love but a wishful self-reflection projected onto fading memories. He needs to convince himself that had his parents been people of this time as well as their time, had they lived into the present, then they would surely embrace their son regardless of his sexuality and that their homophobia would be erased with the advent of the 21st century. Adam’s memories of them require politically correct reimagining, an easy escape from actual, critical reflection on parental love. It’s a depressing tool of self-maintenance that cripples the natural stages of grief.
The “supernatural” conceit is often overpowered by the emotional significance of the memories. Adam’s distortion of his memories of his parents is sickening, which is disturbingly portrayed with a misplaced sweetness or, in the case of Adam’s relationship with Harry, humor.
In one particularly disheartening scene, Harry offers Adam a powder to snort at a nightclub, and only after Adam snorts the drug does Harry say, “I think that was Ketamine,” to which Adam responds with a soft “Oh.” The two lines landed like a joke with this viewer’s audience rather than a troubled cry of addiction. I honestly think either could have been intended, but I don’t think the two are compatible interpretations of the scene. Apparently, The Discarnates incorporates horror into the premise — a creative direction that feels more well-suited to the story being told than the celebration of facile reflection on parent-child relationships.
Joshua Polanski is a freelance film and culture writer who writes regularly for the Boston Hassle and has contributed to the Bay Area Reporter, In Review Online, and Off Screen amongst other places. His interests include the technical elements of filmmaking & exhibition, slow & digital cinemas, and East Asian & Middle Eastern film. He is currently based in Akron, Ohio.