Never did I imagine that Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical film “The Souvenir” would get the sequel treatment. The dark and brooding film which deals with various forms of addiction was buried underneath the buzz surrounding Bong Joon’s Oscar-winning “Parasite” in 2019. A shame, since the standout performances by Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke, were two of the best that year.
“The Souvenir Part II” is an extension of the tragic story that reunites the cast including Byrne’s real-life mother Tilda Swinton, as we watch our budding filmmaker protagonist pick up the pieces while using loss as a mechanism to move forward.
If you haven’t seen Part One, then I would refrain from reading further. Yes, “The Souvenir Part II” works as a standalone film but you won’t be able to connect with central character Julie Harte (Honor Swinton Byrne) on a level that results in the most satisfaction. Hearing about what she went through is not the same as witnessing it yourself. Plus, Burke’s terrific performance must be seen to get you the viewer in the proper mindset for Hogg’s extension (“sequel” doesn’t convey the magnitude of the relationship between both films).
Seeing past imperfections is perhaps Julie’s greatest gift. It’s also her biggest vice. The audience understood boyfriend Anthony (Burke) was a heroin addict long before Julie was informed by two of his friends in the 2019 film. He was good looking, older, and debonair enough to throw off most lovers for a period but the endless amounts of cash he forced Julie to borrow from her mother Rosalind (Swinton), the needle tracks on his arm, and the stolen jewelry were enough red flags to wake up anyone. Julie, however, was living a romantic dream, as if life had a giant snooze button that prevented her from waking up and facing the truth. His death at the end of the film was devasting and it’s here where “The Souvenir Part II” picks back up.
Back at film school, Julie is now moving closer to graduating. Her thesis has changed to the story of her life with Anthony. A brilliant move by writer-director Hogg who basically recreates the first film as a way for Julie to grieve and commemorate Anthony’s life. This doesn’t sit well with the school’s condescending male administrators, but they have never been on Team Julie. Richard Ayoade returns as flamboyant Patrick, also a budding filmmaker, who encourages Julie to memorialize her dead boyfriend while reminding her to avoid the temptation to be obvious. Ayoade’s flashy appearance and diva-ish attitude are a welcome respite from the somberness that shrouds the story.
Honor Swinton Byrne is memorizing to watch. The viewer is left hanging on every facial expression and word uttered from her mouth. We feel a need to understand her character’s train of thought and in one scene those sentiments are expressed by the actress (Ariane Labed) who is playing Julie in her film thesis, a fellow student named Garance, questioning the choices she made when dealing with Anthony. Out of frustration, Julie shuts the questioning down. She also gets into a confrontation with her cinematographer, “None of us have any idea what’s going on” he exclaims during a group meeting. At least her editor (Joe Alwyn) is on Team Julie. Alwyn’s cameo is heartfelt while reminding us of the events that were taking place during the 80s including the Aids epidemic.
The supporting cast features solid performances by Charlie Heaton as a one-night fling for Julie. The “Stranger Things” actor is terrific opposite Catherine Keener in the Fort Worth shot “No Future” now in theaters and on-demand. And James Spencer Ashworth returns as Julie’s dad who suggests she take a break from film school and come work with him on the family farm for a bit. Julie is coping with loss by spending more time at her parent’s Sunderland home and by visiting Anthony’s parents to see how they are holding up.
Hogg’s semi-autobiographical film deals with loss but it’s never depressing. It moves along in slow-burn mode until it doesn’t, and dazzling moments fill the screen. As in the first film, the musical selections are impeccable including Dan Daniels doing a cover of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”, Edwin Geninatti’s “My Thing”, plus 80s grooves that include The Eurhythmics’ ‘There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart)”, Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life”, Propaganda’s “Duel’, and Talk Talk’s “It’s Getting Late In The Evening.”
“The Souvenir Part II” is a gift to fans of the first film who were left contemplating what life had in store for Julie. Swinton Byrne’s performance is even better the second go around as we watch her character get comfortable in her own skin as she approaches 30. The once frail aspiring filmmaker is now taking charge and pushing back, although moments of self-doubt occasionally and understandably rise to the surface, we watch her grieve, cope, and grow.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing at the Angelika Film Center & Café (Dallas), Angelika (Plano), and AMC Dine-In Stonebriar 24 (Frisco)