There are films that capture feelings and moods we’ve experienced in our lives so eerily you almost feel like you are reliving those moments. Of course the situations and scenarios won’t be exactly the same as the ones you went through, but the perception of it all transports you back in time and affects you in ways that are deeply emotional and cathartic. Departure achieves that and much more, seamlessly interweaving a coming-of-age tale with an earnest family drama whilst delicately exploring the awakening of sexual desire with genuine and personal style.
The life of a British middle class family has reached a sad point of no return as a capitulated marriage leads Beatrice (Juliet Stevenson) and her teenage son Elliot (Alex Lawther) to pack things away in their holiday home in the South of France. There’s no fuss or preamble about it: the story begins in the dark of dawn on the day they arrive at the house and follows them for six days, bookending the story in the dark of night. The title hints at more than Beatrice and Elliot’s physical departure from their summer home, however. Although not much happens on the plot level over the course of this pivotal week, a lot of change occurs within these characters, affecting their relationship forever.
The catalyst of this transformation is Clément (Phénix Brossard), a broody and attractive French boy who promptly ignites Elliot’s curiosity from the very first moment he spots him about to jump for a swim into the reservoir. Elliot spends his days wandering to the village and finding quiet spots to write his play, trying his best to avoid his mother and the depressing situation at home. But he’s also dealing with the inner turmoil typical of his age and, as he befriends Clément, it’s evident that he’s trying to cope with the delicate mechanisms of self-discovery.
Beatrice, meanwhile, has her own introspection to go through, having a hard time reconciling with the end of her marriage, and the process of dismantling the house is a painful one as she revels in nostalgia for a time that was and will never be again. Yet what truly matters at the end of the day is her relationship with her son, the starting point of a new era for both of them and something they need to figure out.
Writer/director Andrew Steggall does a magnificent job leading this tremendous cast and delivering a feature film debut that entrances you throughout its running time with gorgeous cinematography of the French countryside, a beautifully melancholic score, and an intense journey into the complex realm of human emotions. His theatre background is evident but he uses it to his advantage, getting the best out of his actors.
Alex Lawther had impressed last year with his turn as young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and it’s no surprise he’s already working across the pond, given his maturity, sensibility, and profound understanding of his craft. French newcomer Phénix Brossard also impresses in a role that could’ve turned into a cliché but which he plays with great range, mastering Clément’s vulnerability beneath a shield of coolness. And, last but not least, Juliet Stevenson’s pedigree speaks for itself but she still deserves praise for the intelligence and nuance of her performance here, which is simply riveting to watch.
Departure transcends gay-themed cinema: it’s a family drama that authentically portrays the conflict and complexity of adolescence and the crumbling leftovers of a failed marriage with pathos but not melodrama – a lyrical, stirring piece of filmmaking that also finds some genuine little moments of humorous relief from the intense drama.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia