The Souvenir nails what it’s like to be trapped in a toxic relationship in your early 20s

Joanna Hogg’s new film, the first in a trilogy, stars Tilda Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne in her first film role.

Lingering in the hazy world of memories, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is based on the director’s experiences going to film school in the 1980s. Mostly set in a small London apartment, the precocious and naive Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, Tilda Swinton’s daughter, in her first film role) falls for Anthony (Tom Burke), a posh older man. Torn between her ambition and her relationship, she is driven by a push and pull of complex emotional trajectories.

Unfolding largely in extended takes, we are drawn deeply into the interior world of Julie. Aloof and somewhat introverted, she is rarely able to say what she means. There is a sense, in her watchful gaze, that she is trying to make sense of the situations she finds herself in. The scope of her new university life, in stark contrast with her sheltered upbringing, often seems just beyond her comprehension. The lingering shots, which rarely cut, channel the feeling of being completely invested in her uninterrupted thought process. While, as an audience, we are privy to more information than she is (or, at the very least, the privilege of perspective), the film is empathetic to her short-sightedness.

There is something so specific about getting trapped in a toxic relationship in your early 20s. Unable to see how deeply she is drawn into Anthony’s life, Julie digs herself deeper and deeper. She foregoes her studies and happiness as she all-but embraces self-destructiveness. The film doesn’t look far to search for reasons why, Julie has to do it because her self-worth has become wrapped up in the relationship’s success. As things only get worse, it becomes more and more difficult to leave.

Burke is beguiling as Anthony. He manages to make the character utterly dislikeable and smug but has a way of looking at Julie that all but forgives his obvious flaws. For a girl out of her element, the attention of an intelligent older man initially serves as a much-needed ego boost. While this swiftly deteriorates, she has already locked into this affair. Caught between a desire to be a Cool Girl and to mother him, she struggles to disengage from the relationship.

Shot in film and digitized film, the movie has an atmosphere of old photographs. With influences from Nicolas Roeg, high emotions are rendered grey and faded. Everything has that strange quality of a near-forgotten dream, contributing to a deep sense of unease. More than just melancholic, the atmosphere of the film is injected with a deep sense of shame, the kind of heart-yanking anxiety of playing back your worst memories hoping you say something different or just walk away. The film has a damp quality as if it were soaked in tears and misery.

Yet The Souvenir’s rather bleak central relationship is counterbalanced by Hogg’s sense of humour and is far from an unrelenting parade of miserableness. It has perspective and distance to see that this isn’t world- ending stuff, even if it does sometimes feel like a slow-motion plane crash. As all-consuming as Julie’s relationship ends up being, there are still moments of joy and comedy that keep her rooted in the real world. Set to be the first entry in a trilogy (the second film is already being shot), these brief reprieves offer hope for Julie, and the audience, that things will get better.

Hogg is a singular talent and The Souvenir is an intimate and beautiful film that is worth seeing on the big screen. It’s so rare that a film captures that sense of loss and hopelessness of your early 20s, your hormonal, inexperienced years of trying to be an adult while you are still firmly emotionally rooted in adolescence. The Souvenir nails that alienating feeling completely. ■

The Souvenir opens in theatres on Friday, June 7. Watch the trailer here: