In a remarkable happenstance, we’ve had four impressive and quite different releases in 2021 in which the grown children of famous actors have played the grown children of those famous actors — and the offspring have all turned in beautiful work.
Dylan Penn played Sean Penn’s daughter in the gritty period-piece drama “Flag Day,” Margaret Qualley delivered Emmy-level work as the lead in the Netflix series “Maid,” with her real-life mother Andie MacDowell as her mom — and even though “Val” was a documentary about the life and times of Val Kilmer, it’s Val’s son Jack who voices his father’s writings and in its own way, that’s a true performance.
Now comes “The Souvenir: Part II,” with Honor Swinton Byrne reprising her role as Julie Harte from the 2019 original, and the great Tilda Swinton playing her real-life daughter’s mother, Rosalind, and though there’s much more to this surreal and beautiful story about loss and healing than this particular relationship, it’s a marvel to behold the layered, nuanced, impeccably timed dynamic between the two actors. The body language, the little asides, the small compliments, the saying of one thing when you mean something quite the opposite, the realness of their interactions … if you eavesdropped on their lives for two minutes, you’d instantly know they were mother and daughter.
Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical film picks up as Julie is still in deep grief over the sudden death of her boyfriend, Anthony (Tom Burke, whose spectacular performance in “The Souvenir” hovers over this story), a charismatic bounder killed by a heroin overdose. In some quietly moving early scenes, we see Julie slowly healing while holed up in the country estate of her parents (Tilda Swinton and James Spencer Ashworth), a place that looks like a watercolor painting come to life, and visiting Anthony’s parents (Barbara Peirson and James Dodd), who are clearly broken by their son’s death and are eternally grateful to Julie for seeing them.
When Julie returns to film school, she decides to scrap the working-class drama she’s been working on and create a romanticized, unstructured version of her time with Anthony. We also drop in on the shooting of an ambitious, period-piece musical lensed by the ridiculous egomaniac Patrick (a hilarious Richard Ayoade), who compares himself to Scorsese and responds to compliments by barking, “That’s marvelously generic.”
Much of “The Souvenir: Part II” is about the collaborative process of creating a movie, and how filmmakers can use their art to tell their stories — not as the stories happened, but how they wished or imagined they could have happened. Late in the film, writer-director Hogg makes the audacious choice to essentially show us Julie’s movie not as it is in the “reality” of the story, but how it occupies her mind, her dreams, her emotions, her heart. It skirts the line of art-house pretentiousness and perhaps crosses over a time or two, but it’s also strange and beautiful and haunting and original — like this movie itself.