The Souvenir Part II, despite its name, isn’t just a sequel to Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical film, The Souvenir from 2019. It is a sequel, yes, but it’s also a stylized re-examination of what that first film was all about and how it goes on to impact the young filmmaker at the heart of the story. That is Julie, played once again quite brilliantly by Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton, who also appears in the film and even has an extended, more impactful role compared to Part I.
The film picks up right after the events of The Souvenir, in which Julie learns, tragically, that her lover, Anthony, played by Tom Burke, overdosed on heroin and was found dead in a public toilet. Part II goes on, then, to frame Julie’s grieving process through the development of her student film, which will determine if she can graduate from film school. And sure enough, she settles on retelling the story of her immensely toxic relationship with Anthony.
It’s very meta in that way, because Joanna Hogg is obviously doing the same thing one layer removed, since this is indeed a story about her own life, and she gets to play and have a little fun with the concept of making a film about what you know, albeit through the grainy lens of an A24 arthouse picture.
Upon its initial release, The Souvenir received massive praise from critics in 2019, and understandably so. It’s the type of slow burn precision filmmaking people who watch maybe too many movies will easily get lost in. Though many others, like myself, couldn’t quite stomach the constant anxiety of watching this young woman endure such a horrendous relationship, as it could really be a slog to sit through the same red flags again and again, which was indeed the point, to be fair. Julie is a complex character because she’s reserved and a bit timid, but she’s also an artist, which is an issue when directors need to have a level of assertion and at least small bursts of extroversion in order to get the film made.
So in a sense, Part II reclaims that flaw of Julie’s character and explains how she can potentially rise above and overcome it. The sequel contains far more attention to the filmmaking process, realized here quite realistically though all the tedious problems and obstacles that have to be resolved when putting a picture together, the harshest of them being what you can do as a director when people within your crew can’t seem to get along and begin to erupt into shouting matches.
I still found myself often frustrated with Julie in this movie, though I always got the sense for what Hogg wants to communicate through the character’s shortcomings and why she reverts into her shell when dealing with adversity. It’s ultimately a film about growth through criticism, in which you can imagine Hogg looking squarely in the face of film critics and cinephiles and saying she can take whatever criticism they can lob her way. There’s a scene in this film, in fact, depicting a persnickety director played by the scene-stealing Richard Ayoade, who’s practically staring into the camera as he laments the lack of bite and edge people have these days when it comes to explaining how they feel about a film beyond the cliched shorthand our reviews tend to have — it drags in the middle, oh I liked it, etc.
The meta quality of the film can certainly get tiring, as it plays the same note again and again without saying much of anything new in between. But again, it’s almost like the film is designed to be consumed by other filmmakers and the most ardent cinephiles, so Hogg is merely playing the strings of her expected audience, which I honestly can’t fault her much for.
If you were impressed with the first film’s washed out film grain, constant scene cutting, and wandering camera perspective, Part II offers more of that same aesthetic, and I’ll admit there’s a real comfort to be had in its laid-back style. Though one of the film’s most annoying tricks, which it goes back to far too often, is the overlapping mumble-core conversation, a product of the script being improvised much of the time by the actors. So you can actually hear the performers trying to figure out what to say next and interrupting each other and talking over one another. And it’s meant to invoke real life, sure, but the issue is that not everyone talks like that, with so much of the same cadence and rapid-fire pontificating.
It almost dilutes some of the uniqueness of the characters when they all essentially communicate the same way, save for Julie and her mother, which is probably where the sequel outshines the first most of all. Their relationship is full of these frank, yet wanting conversations that usually happen in between these slice of life moments with her father. I always enjoyed these scenes at her parents’ home because you can tell Hogg wants the audience to understand the source of her art, both creatively and financially. She doesn’t hide the fact that she was only able to make a career in independent cinema because she was privileged enough to have a supportive family able to finance her early work. Though it’s not as if she’s saying her art is worthless or at best lesser because of what enabled it to flourish in the first place. Not at all.
I do like the film and consider it to be somewhat more accessible than its predecessor. It’s easier to watch and there’s more joy and humor to be had, here. Plus, the ensemble is once again spot on with many returning faces and some new characters, with Charlie Heaton in particular getting a more challenging role than anything he’s done in Stranger Things.
It’s a gem of a movie made to be a gem, and I’m always happy to see small arthouse films actually get sequels in the first place, though I do wonder if you even need to see Part I to get a lot out of Part II, since to be honest, not much really happened that isn’t already explained rather concisely, here. Either way, I can’t strongly recommend this movie to anyone who isn’t already bought into this format, so unless you’re a devotee of independent film, The Souvenir Part II might not leave you with much worth remembering.
The Souvenir Part II is now playing in select theaters and gets an expanded release on November 5 through A24. Watch the official trailer here.