Joanna Hogg tells the story of a young artists’ maturity with an airtight structure and incredible performances.
“Show, don’t tell.” That’s the advice given to countless aspiring writers and filmmakers. But how far can you get showing without showing? There’s a scene around the mid-point of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir that breaks down this approach: protagonist Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) and her class of film students are discussing Psycho, specifically the iconic shower scene. The class agrees: we never exactly see Norman Bates stab Marion Crane, but the collection of images – expertly edited together – clearly convey the idea. Showing, without showing.
The Souvenir as a whole follows similar stylistic guidelines. This is Julie’s story, a portrait of an artist as a young woman, but it’s told with unprecedented levels of restraint. Hogg’s approach is frequently slow and stiff, yet as a whole, the film is absolutely airtight. She favors wide-shots and slow zooms, her camera usually still and stationary, her compositions often obscuring the faces of her subjects. We’re left to sit with these images and all they imply.
This method also distinguishes the film from its closest points of comparison. Set in Thatcher’s England, Julie’s far from the first privileged young person in a movie who’s determined to make relevant and insightful art (see: Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels or the Coen’s Barton Fink). But she’s got far more pressing problems in the form of Tom Burke’s Anthony, an older suitor with a habitual heroin problem. His addiction breeds dangerous codependency, a void that Julie must eventually claw her way out of.
This is Honor Swinton Byrne’s first performance, and it’s a debut for the ages.
Anthony’s arrogant and insufferable (to say the least) – which just makes him even more interesting to Julie. Burke’s fantastic here – but then again, the same can be said of everyone in the cast. This is Honor Swinton Byrne’s first performance, and it’s a debut for the ages. She effortlessly infuses Julie with deep pathos, balancing her naiveté with an endearing curiosity and a genuine thoughtfulness. The role was constructed around Hogg’s own past and memories, and it’s a testament to the filmmaking – and Swinton Byrne– that while The Souvenir might be dense and formal, it always feels intensely personal.
That might also be because Swinton Byrne’s own mother, Tilda Swinton, plays her on-screen mom. Then again, when your mom is one of the world’s greatest living thespians, her (pronouns?) casting has more than a few advantages. Swinton doesn’t disappoint here, playing a sympathetic, yet distant, figure in Julie’s life. The elder Swinton’s scenes are minimal, and she never threatens to steal the spotlight away from her daughter.
At the end of the day, this is another high-quality coming-of-age drama distributed by A24. Yes, the same studio behind Lady Bird, Moonlight, Mid90s, The Florida Project and Eighth Grade has delivered another unorthodox tale of a young person reaching some sort of maturity. Of its predecessors, The Souvenir has the most in common with Gerwig’s triumph – the way Hogg strings together images and scenes somewhat resembles Lady Bird’s dynamic construction. But make no mistake, The Souvenir certainly breaks new ground, illustrating just how much you can show without showing. “Telling” you about it can’t quite do it justice.
(The Souvenir is in limited release now. You can also read our capsule review of The Souvenir from Sundance here.)