When I watched Joanna Hogg’s 2019 coming-of-age drama The Souvenir, I was struck by the authenticity and intimacy of its storytelling. It was a film rarely given over to grand, dramatic gestures, and instead it luxuriated in smaller moments, quiet realizations, and deep heartache. The Souvenir treated its audience like adults who didn’t need clear heroes and villains, and instead embraced the complexities of its characters and their relationships. Hogg goes a step further with The Souvenir: Part II as she examines how we can even hope to understand the past when it’s not only complicated, but then filtered through the difficulties of a collaborative art form like filmmaking. How can you hope to understand your past while also asking other people to trust something as slippery as emotional memory? Once again, Hogg shows restraint, thoughtfulness, and trust in inviting us into her protagonist’s heart and mind.
Part II picks up in the aftermath of the first installment. Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is grieving the loss of her boyfriend Anthony (Tom Burke), a heroin addict who died of an overdose. As Julie starts reaching out to acquaintances to get a better picture of Anthony’s final days and gain a better understanding of the man she loved, she resolves to change the film she had planned for her graduation project. While her new film exploring her relationship with Anthony befuddles her professors who don’t understand her approach, Julie finds that the best way to deal with her grief and reckon with such a tumultuous relationship is through her art, but she runs up against those who fail to grasp what she’s going for.
Hogg retains the same tone for Part II as she did for the original, crafting a film more out of moments than plot momentum. You never lose track of where you are or what’s happening, but Hogg constructs her movie to maximize our understanding of Julie, and especially Julie coming into her own. Whereas in the first film, Julie is largely framed as part of a crowd or at the margins (which also symbolizes how she’s competing with Anthony’s addiction in her own romance), in Part II, Julie now takes center stage both in examining the narrative of her relationship to Anthony, but how she’ll choose to create an artistic work from her memories. Part II is a perfect sequel because it not only builds on what came before, but it completes the narrative in a way where the first part wasn’t unsatisfying, but it shows why we needed more of Julie’s story.
Watching Julie make her film also makes Part II one of the best films I’ve ever seen about filmmaking. Making any movie is difficult, but for Julie, she’s trying to get to something more experimental and drill down to the nature of her emotions and a complex relationship that not everyone will understand. How do you communicate that to your cinematographer? To your producers? To your actors? And if they don’t understand it, do you even have a hope of communicating it to your audience? And yet Hogg cleverly contrasts Julie’s filmmaking with that of another filmmaker, the arrogant Patrick (Richard Ayoade in a scene-stealing turn). Patrick struggles with his lavish spectacle that he can’t seem to get his hands around while Julie, whose process may frustrate her collaborators, can always speak honestly about what she’s going for because her art comes from an honest place. It may not be the most commercial piece or easy to digest, but Julie has done the work and strived to translate her emotional turmoil into art.
Byrne once again enraptures the audience. While Part II has its share of returning characters from the first movie, it once again rests on Byrne’s quiet, introspective performance. Julie is never given over to massive displays of emotions, and instead Byrne has to win us over with a look, and she makes it look effortless. Rather than wondering where Hogg ends and Julie begins, director and actor have created a character that speaks beyond a single experience and makes The Souvenir duology one of the great coming-of-age stories of our time.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, The Souvenir: Part II could have easily devolved into tedious navel-gazing. After all, this is a film about a filmmaker making a film that’s loosely based on the life of the film’s director. But Hogg is smart enough to make something universal out of her creativity and artistry. She understands that when we’re trying to tell a personal story, there still needs to be artistry and emotional truth to it, and even when there are people who doubt you or fail to understand what you’re going for, the sheer act of creation has healing power. If The Souvenir leaves us on a somber and enigmatic note, Part II is one of triumph, not of conquering the past or dominating grief, but of wrestling emotion into art.
KEEP READING: Joanna Hogg on ‘The Souvenir’ and Avoiding Reactions That Could Influence the Sequel