There were a handful of films at Sundance that I sadly missed, one of them being writer/director Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama, The Souvenir. Many of the conversations I heard coming out of the screening I worked were decidedly mixed, and that muted reaction may have swayed me to not try and cram the film into my busy schedule at the festival. Having seen the film now, I can understand why this film did not work for many people. I also found it to be an extremely well-crafted and vulnerable look at an artist coming into her own.
The Souvenir stars Honor Swinton-Byrne as Julie, an introverted film student trying to find her voice in her art. Julie begins a relationship with Anthony (an impressive Tom Burke), a charismatic and blunt businessman who might not be the most trustworthy. Their toxic relationship puts a strain on her emotional health, which bleeds through into her filmmaking. The story follows Julie through this tumultuous period in her life, as the intense personal struggles help shape and strengthen Julie as she finds herself.
Much like Shia LaBeouf’s unflinching screenplay for another Sundance film, Honey Boy, Joanna Hogg’s screenplay comes from a very personal place. Many of the issues I have seen people have with The Souvenir is the toxic relationship between Julie and Anthony, with many people highlighting their frustration with Julie’s naivete in reaction to many of the obvious red flags that Anthony waves early and often.
However, I see Joanna’s coming to terms with who she was in her early filmmaking years as arguably the film’s greatest strength. Julie is incredibly naïve and codependent, apologizing when she isn’t in the wrong and often willing to give Anthony a second chance. She is also going on an emotional journey that leaves her wiser and more confident than ever, and I applaud Joanna for showing the more vulnerable aspects of her younger years, as they give so much weight to Julie’s transformation into who she becomes.
Honor Swinton-Byrne is a revelation as Julie, very understated and authentic in her first acting role. She ably handles the wide range of emotions she has to go through in this story, selling the internal conflict with subtlety and precision. Acting talent apparently runs in the family, since Honor is the daughter of the always-great Tilda Swinton, who co-stars in this film as Julie’s mother.
Their relationship might be the most honestly felt in The Souvenir, as the real-life mother and daughter are able to tap into that bond so effortlessly. Little moments between them, like when Julie’s mother wants to move stuff around in Julie’s apartment, are so lived-in and natural that it often feels like we are a fly on the wall of Julie’s apartment, quietly observing a real conversation.
The narrative lacks a certain momentum, which may prove plodding for some. I did find myself feeling the length as we got closer to the film’s conclusion. And yet, I was always admiring the craft, the performances, and Joanna’s artistic vulnerability on display. She makes sure to punctuate certain scenes with eclectic song choices that give a sense of the joy Julie has in her filmmaking process. Richard Ayoade also relishes in the brief screen-time he has as Anthony’s friend, providing a welcome burst of comedic timing amidst an admittedly uncomfortable moment for Julie.
The Souvenir ends on a visually poetic shot that so eloquently completes Julie’s arc, I found myself sitting there stunned as the credits began rolling. The film ends with this shot, but the Joanna’s personal journey that she relays through Julie truly comes to a close with the production of this film, an artfully made memento that stands as one of the best films of 2019, thus far.
The Souvenir from A24 films is rated R and is in select theaters now.