Film Review: Stranger Things

This ultra-slight, minimalist and arty affair brims over with indie <i>ennui</i>.
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Oona (Bridget Collins), in the process of dealing with her dead mother’s house and effects, encounters a homeless Middle Eastern man, Mani (Adeel Akhtar), on the premises. At first she’s hostile to him, but a journal he leaves behind after she kicks him off the property intrigues her with his evocative drawings. She tracks him down to return it, and slowly these two loners form a delicate friendship.

Plot-wise, that’s about it, and throughout Stranger Things I kept being haunted by Rita Tushingham movies from the early 1960s, especially Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, in which Tushingham, the ultimate downscale waif, formed an unlikely liaison with a black homosexual. Oona recalls so many of Tushingham’s misfit characters, but the script by co-directors Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal has nothing of the richness of Delaney’s dialogue and character observation and is thin to the point of malnutrition. Neither sad Oona nor the even sadder Mani is especially communicative, so there are a lot of pregnant silences and meaningful looks going on in this basically two-handed chamber piece which requires a surfeit of audience patience.

Burke’s lovely cinematography is a definite boon; despite the usual heavy reliance on extreme close-ups and handheld shakiness, her capture of the sleepy seaside town where the characters live at least gives us something to look at while waiting for them to say something. Overall, the conception is flimsy and wispy, with certain “plea for understanding” p.c. overtones due to Mani’s ethnicity that may have fragile appeal for some particularly disaffected moviegoers.

Stranger Things was actually shot in sequence, and the actors were never given full scripts, only segmented scenes to perform. (You rather imagine them eagerly awaiting their lines, only to finally get them and scratch their heads, muttering “This is it?”) This self-conscious auteurial approach results in a tentative, shakily improvisatory quality which one supposes is exactly what the filmmakers were aiming for, but which I found irritating. Collins and Akhtar do their best under the circumstances, but the most interesting character is actually Oona’s unseen mother, who has left behind tape recordings that reveal a far fuller, richer personality than either of the protagonists.