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Review: Anti-blockbuster 'The Souvenir' navigates heroin and the hidden pitfalls of young love

"The Souvenir" [Photo: A24]

"The Souvenir" [Photo: A24]

The Souvenir borrows its title from a Jean-Honoré Fragonard oil painting in which a young woman, overjoyed by a love letter, carves her beau’s initials into a tree. The picture is idyllic, a model of Rococo love.

Its namesake film is anything but romantic.

A semi-autobiographical tale by Joanna Hogg, The Souvenir focuses on proxy Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), an aspiring filmmaker who falls for an older man, Anthony (Tom Burke). When he’s not doing secretive things for the British Foreign Office, he’s wining and dining young Julie. A fancy meal and a day at the museum soon evolve into a Venice jaunt and a trip to meet the parents, who of course get along swimmingly with the smart and charming Anthony. Julie gets into film school, and everything seems wonderful... so of course something is terribly wrong.

Anthony starts asking for a few quid here and there (we’re in England, guv). His attitude toward Julie becomes increasingly combative. She notices bruises in the crook of his left arm, but she’s too naive to put it all together. Hogg slow-rolls it throughout, though the audience is wise to Anthony’s heroin use.

As depictions of opioid addiction go, The Souvenir feels refreshingly true to life. Too often, films that tackle heroin glamorize the drug while trying to condemn it. (Don’t get me started on The Dirt.) And even a fantastic movie like Trainspotting, despite its horrors, presents a hyper-stylized world where the cool factor mostly overshadows anything bad that happens.

The Souvenir ’s study is straightforward and without gloss. Anthony’s shittiness swings in relation to his last fix, and after oblique nods, Julie eventually finds him strung out, covered in vomit, and screaming like a lunatic. There’s nothing glamorous about it.

More than anything, The Souvenir is a study of young love and its hidden pitfalls. Anybody who’s witnessed or been a part of a toxic relationship will recognize the signs well before Julie does. Anthony skillfully turns the tables on her time and again, not blaming her for issues in their relationship so much as fooling her into taking the blame herself. It’s textbook manipulation, and the romance’s terrible arc feels so uncanny that it’s hard to shake. And while Anthony is undoubtedly the problem, Hogg takes an honest look at Julie-slash-herself, too. For a quasi-self-portrait, The Souvenir is surprisingly objective.

In the midst of summer blockbuster season, The Souvenir is an anti-blockbuster: measured (to a fault), intimate to the point of occasional claustrophobia, and subtle all the way down to its minimalist lighting. Seeing this right after John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum was one of the weirdest back-to-back screening experiences I’ve ever had, but it goes to show that wildly different genres can all have their highlights. The Souvenir isn’t the most exciting movie ever put onscreen; nevertheless, it’s intelligent, beautifully shot, and genuine in a way that so many dramas try and fail to be.

The Souvenir
Director: Joanna Hogg
Starring: Neil Young, Tosin Cole, Jack McMullen
Rated: R
Theater: Area theaters, now showing