Over the last decade in particular, the evolution of queer dramas has been monumental to behold. With an over abundance of important stories finally being told, it becomes increasingly commonplace for the truly great ones to somehow slip through the cracks. This year alone, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe and Of An Age both debuted to minimal fanfare when they deserved so much more. Perhaps a film this bold in its messaging can break through to the mainstream—or at least the awards circuit—in a major way. Writer/director Andrew Haigh delicately hand-crafts the year’s most devastating, moving film in haunting ghost story, All of Us Strangers. Its deeply personal exploration of connection, guilt, parenthood, misspent youth, queer identity, and relationship dynamics are executed with the delicate touch of a master storyteller. Keeping a tale that overflows with magical realism this grounded, emphasizing the gentle embrace of a simple touch, could not have been easy. For those who have lost a parent, All of Us Strangers threatens to reopen old wounds while presenting a unique viewpoint about overcoming loss.
It all begins with the simple focus on a near-empty apartment building. A sense of seclusion leaps out as the camera explores a mostly-empty refrigerator containing leftover Chinese food, and an emphasis on the seclusion of this sleek abode. Adam (Andrew Scott, Fleabag, 1917) lazes about, attempting to write, when an alarm goes off. He goes outside, and that is when he discovers only one other soul resides inside. The man waves out to Adam from up on the sixth floor. Later that night, he knocks on Adam’s door in a friendly, horny gesture of goodwill. Introducing himself as Harry (Paul Mescal, Aftersun, Normal People), the piercing blue eyes stare back at Adam with a seductive allure. Harry, wielding a bottle of alcohol, offers it up, along with “whatever else you might want.” Despite the intimacy of their handshake and obvious looks of desire shared between them, Adam does not let Harry inside.
Even in this early scene, the chemistry between Mescal and Scott teases the possibilities in their connection. Their shared situational isolation manifests in different ways, with the inevitability of their connection always looming. Both Harry and Adam are flawed characters, which only serves to make them feel more real. To be completely honest, as much as I adore Paul Mescal’s acting prowess, I found it difficult to connect with his critically-acclaimed films Aftersun and Carmen. It was not until Mescal’s vulnerable performance here that his ballooning talent finally sparked a perfect match. In a movie overflowing with phenomenal performances, Mescal’s is one of the very best. All of Us Strangers bottles the isolation and loneliness of its central character, weaving in subtle foreshadowing and mesmerizing imagery. Adam Scott’s performance of a lifetime deserves every bit of awards attention and acclaim.
As a potential love story blossoms in their gloomy London apartments, Adam, a burgeoning film and television screenwriter revisits his past, both literally and figuratively. He pulls a few mementos out of a box to reminisce, then takes a train to visit his childhood home. Adam lost both his parents when he only twelve in a deadly car crash, a vital fact that he later discloses to Harry. Adam soaks up the quietness of a nearby field; as if summoned there, his father (Jamie Bell, Billy Elliot, Rocketman) materializes, and Adam follows the man back home. Visiting with his parents when he is now actually physically older than them does not seem logical, and yet, appears every bit as natural as meeting old friends. Adam begins going back time and time again, eventually comfortable enough to expose revelations about his own identity to parents whose worldviews still exist firmly rooted in 80s norms. Haigh’s film wastes no time spoon-feeding the audience, nor stopping in its tracks to explain the magical elements of Adam’s trips down memory lane.
In delving deep into the visitations with his parents, All of Us Strangers opens up a whole new layer of existential drama. Losing the ones you love is absolutely never easy, and when it is a parent, the pain becomes nearly too much to bear. Adam lost both parents in one fell swoop, and has obviously held on to so many things he was never able to discuss with them for decades. The juxtaposition between aged photographs of young Adam with the new memories he makes as an adult in their home adds a strange level of symmetry. Adam, forced to contemplate the past behaviors of his parents, learns how to embrace their imperfections, too. In one of the film’s most heart-wrenching sequences, Adam pours out his soul to Mum (Claire Foy, The Crown, First Man) as he seeks comfort in between Mum and Dad on their bed. Both parents are presented as loving in their own ways, perfectly imperfect. Even as Haigh makes strides towards implying this cannot last forever, the therapeutic beauty in Adam’s parental exchanges feel wonderfully specific.
Apart from a powerful ending that completely recontextualizes the entire film, the grounded intimacy of All of Us Strangers practically catapults off the screen. Sex scenes and dramatic moments are filmed in drastic closeup, emphasizing each actor’s features, along with the power of suggestion. The squeezing of thighs, the passionate embraces, and the tightness of wrapping hands on hands reminds us of the tenderness of the human connection. This is one gorgeous gay drama presented in a way we have not seen before, loosely based on the book by Taichi Yamada. Closing one’s film with Frankie Goes to Hollywood classic “The Power of Love” is a bold move, but in a movie this aching with sentiment, it adds a whole new layer of decadent, rich subtext. The lushness of the cinematography manages to depict the nightmarish and the beautiful in equal measure. Whether one is here for the textured romance or the enrapturing complications of parental relationships, All of Us Strangers will leave them satiated through its tragic, unforgettable ghostly tale. Call your parents more—knowing when will be the last time is a rarely granted luxury.
Get acquainted with All of Us Strangers when it premieres theatrically on Friday, December 22nd. This beautiful drama screened at 2023’s NewFest, and debuted at the 50th Telluride Film Festival.