'The Souvenir' Review: A Simmering, Unforgettable Story

(This review originally ran during our coverage of the Sundance Film Festival. The Souvenir is in theaters today.)Almost all narrative films follow the same structure. A clear beginning, middle and end. A main storyline involving main characters. A problem or situation that must be worked out or resolved. There are very few deviations of this format, for two distinct reasons. One is that we're accustomed to it – it's all we've ever known. The other is that it works – if it ain't broke, don't fix it.So when a movie comes along that bucks the trend, shrugs off the norm, and unfolds in a different way, it can be quite jarring. Such is the case with Joanna Hogg's transcendent The Souvenir. Hogg ignores a traditional narrative approach for a series of vignettes that make up a bigger picture. It works wonderfully – if you stick with it. But you need to prepare yourself for the long-haul.Of all the films I saw at Sundance this year, The Souvenir is the only one in which I noticed walk-outs. As Hogg's languid, impressionistic story unfolded, one person after another gathered up their coat and ducked out of the theater. They apparently didn't have the patience for what the filmmaker was doing here. I confess that once or twice, I felt similarly impatient. But I stuck with it. And I'm glad I did.The Souvenir spans a year in the life of film student Julie, played by Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also appears in the film. Swinton-Byrne is making her lead debut here, and what a debut it is. She gives a quiet, wholly genuine performance – there's nothing showy about this part, and yet Swinton-Byrne is working painstakingly to bring Julie to life.Julie begins dating, and soon living with, the posh, droll Anthony (Tom Burke). The dry, laid-back Anthony seems like Julie's complete opposite, and yet they make a compelling couple. At least at first. As The Souvenir progresses, Julie learns that Anthony has a rather serious heroin habit, and his mental state begins to deteriorate.This scenario could easily lend itself to a more traditional narrative. But that's not what Hogg is after here. Instead, she lets the story – or rather, stories – unfold gradually. We move from one day to the next in Julie and Anthony's lives, as if we're pulling pages off a calendar. It's fascinating to watch, although it makes for an altogether strange viewing experience. You will feel every single second of the 119 minute runtime tick by. But that's a feature, not a bug. The passage of time feels more real; more authentic. Nothing here seems staged. It's almost as if Hogg has traveled back to the 1980s, where the film is set, and started spying on these characters. Even the gauzy, cloudy cinematography (courtesy of David Raedeker) feels real, as if we're gazing at an old photograph come to life.The performances are what carry The Souvenir. In addition to Swinton-Byrne's star-making turn, Burke, as the tragic Anthony, is endlessly watchable. The character easily could've been despicable or loathsome, but in Burke's hands, he's made sympathetic. We can't help but get wrapped up in his situation.Casual audiences will likely reject The Souvenir. Some cinephiles may even grow impatient with the day-by-day approach on display here. But the more of yourself you give to the film, the more you'll get in return. By the time the credits roll, you'll have felt as if you've spent an entire year with living, breathing people, not characters. The end result is stunning./Film Rating: 9 out of 10