What happens when a mother and son project their sexualities on the same person? Danni Glover reviews Andrew Stegall’s feature debut, Departure.
“You’re a bit of a cliché – ‘the poet’.”
Andrew Stegall’s feature directorial debut is heavily involved with clichés. It’s a light-on-plot character study of a gay teenager holidaying in France with his mother, recently separated from his father, and the young local boy upon whom they focus their sexual frustrations. The South of France is timeless and idyllic, the perfect location for early sex in the late summer between a young man who quotes Proust in an effort at intellectual superiority while the other’s burgeoning masculinity explodes in a fit of fury. And although the nature of cliché is familiarity, I found the film frustratingly difficult to connect with. At the risk of sounding clichéd myself, it was less than the sum of its parts.
Departure’s main character, Elliot (Andrew Lawther) is a sensitive, artistic, young man who is more interested in fumbling at the boundaries of his youthful sexuality than realising that his parents are complex people. It’s a character study that has been so well-done (from Pretty in Pink to The Kings of Summer) that one starts to believe it’s long overdue its subversion. The film has moments of self-awareness – Lawther plays his role with the coy self-insertion of an Alan Bennett character, anguishing over how to translate his florid English prose into French with accuracy and panache – but much of it feels neurotic, as juvenile in its emotional conceit as Elliot is towards his mother’s mid-divorce grief. He’s not particularly likeable, and I struggled to find him even relatable, though he is well-realised, particularly in his conversations with his mother (Juliet Stevenson). While Elliot approaches Beatrice with taut adolescent confrontation, she responds with frustrated deflection. Their performances are best when they are scene partners; Stevenson is only becoming more charming and understated as her career goes on and Lawther, though playing a broadly similar character as he did in The Imitation Game and X+Y, is convincingly committed to the angst and sensitivity of his character.
Although the nature of cliché is familiarity, I found the film frustratingly difficult to connect with.
Visually, the film is outstanding. The location is perfectly observed to suggest an old-world out-of-time-ness in which it makes perfect sense for a teenager to quote Victor Hugo or swim in a reservoir without Instagram, and the characters’ relative isolation in their musty cottage does more to convince me of their crippling self-absorption than the script does. There’s a sense that they’re more conscious of their physicality there, and that this consciousness represses them somewhat, a contrived self-analysis which is picked up on by Clément (Phénix Brossard) after Elliot, in a clumsy attempt at flirtation, says he saw him swimming in the reservoir near their cottage.
“Tu nages pas toi?” [You don’t swim?]
“Oui, mais en Anglais.” [Yes, but only in English.]
“Et pas en Français.” [And not in French.]
“En Angleterre, [In England] I mean. I don’t swim in the barrage.”
I did wonder if this film might have been easier to enjoy or relate to if I had enjoyed some of the privileges that Elliot had. Not only the material wealth of a holiday home in the south of France (I wouldn’t say no to this, however), but also the self-assurance that causes him to reject a conciliatory conversation with his mother about his sexuality. In a way, it’s refreshing to see a film with a gay teenager who has pretty standard anxieties about discovering his sexuality, rather than suffering from traumatised repression, or being punished for expressing it, but at the same time, the tone of the scene reminded me of a well-meaning friend telling me that my sexuality doesn’t matter to them, even when I wished they would have the nuance to realise that it’s important enough to matter a little. Though aesthetically stunning with subtle and tender performances, the film is uneven and ultimately unsatisfying, both as a coming-of-age story and as a young queer romance.
See this if you liked: Sex and Lucia, Blue is the Warmest Colour.
Click here for more information on how to watch Departure.
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