Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal in "All of Us Strangers." Source: Searchlight Pictures

Review: 'All of Us Strangers' a Poignant, Haunting Gay Romance

Megan Kearns READ TIME: 4 MIN.

What if you could see and talk to a lost loved one again? Love can help heal old wounds. "All of Us Strangers" is a poignant gay romance and a melancholic exploration of grief. A strange, esoteric, and haunting film, it wrenchingly captures the vacillating push-pull fear of loneliness and connection.

Out gay director Andrew Haigh wrote and directed the film, which stars Paul Mescal and out gay actor Andrew Scott, and is based on the 1987 Japanese novel "Strangers" by Taichi Yamada. Premiering at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival, "All of Us Strangers" screened at various film festivals, including the 2023 New York Film Festival. It was nominated for awards at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and the British Independent Film Awards.

Adam (Andrew Scott) leads an isolated, lonely existence. He's a gay screenwriter living as one of the only tenants in a London high-rise apartment building. One night, he meets his charismatic neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal). As the two embark on a burgeoning intense relationship, memories of Adam's deceased parents – who tragically died in a car accident when he was a child – consume Adam. He returns to his suburban childhood home and finds his parents (Claire Foy, Jamie Bell) still living there, looking exactly as they did 30 years earlier. Adam frequently returns to talk with his parents, spending time with them and catching them up on his life.

Andrew Scott gives an excellent performance as the gentle, restrained, and yearning protagonist. Seeing Adam tentative around Harry elicits bittersweet emotions. Grief and isolation shaped Adam's life. He doesn't want to let go of the past, fearful to fully embrace his future. Haigh intentionally cast a queer actor in the lead role, as he knew someone queer could understand the "nuances I was searching for in the film's exploration of queerness."

Paul Mescal is wonderful, giving a complex performance, as he has in "Aftersun" and "God's Creatures." Harry is bold and charismatic, exuding a melancholy-tinged audacity. Harry vulnerably shares with Adam that he always felt like a stranger in his own family. It feels like a tender wound. While anyone feeling like an outcast can relate, it's a heartbreaking line of dialogue (my favorite in the film) that specifically speaks to what many of us LGBTQ+ people feel.

"All of Us Strangers"
Source: Searchlight Pictures

Current film discourse often debates the purpose or need of sex scenes in film. Aside from tantalizing aesthetics, sex scenes can reveal important information about a film's characters. Such is the case here. The seductive sex scenes in "All of Us Strangers" evoke a tenderness between Adam and Harry. Queer sex scenes can be important for us queer people. While not always the case – and while tremendous variation exists, as no group is a monolith – it's often clear when a queer director films queer sex scenes. Adam and Harry's chemistry feels electric and palpable. It feels like they reveal emotional as well as physical layers of themselves to each other.

Coming out scenes are staples in cinematic history. In one of my favorite scenes, Adam comes out as gay to his mother after she assumes he's straight and asks if he has a girlfriend. She tells him he doesn't look gay; he gently questions her assumption. Adam's mother isn't accepting, a contrast to Adam's father's warm reaction. She doesn't rebuff Adam, but she can't seem to reconcile her expectations. His mother says no parent would want their child to be gay because it's a hard life; she worries about him dealing with homophobia and HIV/AIDS. He says he's happy to be gay. The excellently written conversation between Adam and his mother feels raw and candid. It's refreshing to see a self-accepting queer character who isn't conflicted about their sexuality.

I love Andrew Haigh's tender, heartbreaking film "Lean on Pete" and his subtle yet nevertheless emotionally devastating film "45 Years," as well as the wonderful critically-acclaimed gay series "Looking," for which he directed approximately half of the episodes. Vulnerability permeates his films; there's a pervasive quietude and subtlety that requires a diligent and patient audience, who are rewarded with emotional resonance and transcendence.

Due to delving into his own past, Haigh said that adapting the novel was "a long and sometimes painful process." While exploring love and relationships, he also wanted to examine "the distinct experience of a specific generation of gay people growing up in the 80s." This is clearly a very personal film for Haigh, including the scenes of Adam visiting his parents that were filmed in Haigh's childhood home. Nightclub scenes were shot at the "iconic LGBTQ entertainment venue" Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

A bittersweet, esoteric queer film, "All of Us Strangers" transcends the bonds of space and time, reconnecting with lost loved ones; it's evocative of Céline Sciamma's powerful film "Petite Maman." Filmed on 35mm, the cinematography evokes a dreamy, diaphanous nostalgia. Not quite a ghost story, and not quite a time-travel narrative, the unconventional film sprinkles genre elements and themes to culminate in an achingly moving cinematic experience.

While Adam's parents exist as some sort of apparition, Adam is essentially a ghost in his own life; he remains isolated and disconnected from others, trapped by grief and pain. Intrepid Harry excavates something buried within him, catalyzing him to contend with his trauma and embrace life and love. Time is ephemeral, but in the beautiful film's mystical yet grounded realm, a moment lasts for an eternity.

"All of Us Strangers" opens in theaters Friday, December 22, 2023.

by Megan Kearns

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