Directed by: #MarkBrennan
Written by: #MarkBrennan
The ‘strangers meeting by chance’ beat is by now so well-established that to use it is to have a certain chunk of the storytelling decisions already made for you. But this works out happily for Squall, whose originality lies in its finer points anyway. Directed and written by Mark Brennan, the film follows Ben (Gary Beadle) and Margaret (Jessica Chamberlain), two lost souls drifting around a corporate hotel bar, who tumble into conversation about their private griefs and cut losses.
Their conversations are the kind that can really only happen with strangers, allowed to operate on a vague, metaphysical scale. Yet Ben and Margaret don’t talk in wordy, breathless sentences but in weary understatements. The root of their sadness is not some grand cosmic discontent; it is palpable loss. They’ve both had people they love whipped away, and it is the fact of this shared wound that will allow them to rattle around together for an evening.
They go to nightclubs and to all-hours greasy diners and to places that they shouldn’t. There is sweaty dancing under ambient lights. There is plenty of drinking, to stave off sadness. There is dancing again, when such an exercise proves futile. Through all this, it is their togetherness that prevents them from being entirely lost; when one has that faraway look in their eye, the other coaxes them back.
Ben is old enough that the memory of his failed marriage has already begun to fade in its intensity. He speaks somewhat mournfully about the state of things but is resigned to the limbo he is stuck in. Margaret is younger and more restless, unused to grief and now in the messy, painful throes of figuring out how to process it.
In the schematic storyboards for Squall, Ben and Margaret appear roughly the same age, both in their twenties. I do not know why Ben was aged up, but it richens the story. There is a certain patient perspective that only age allows for, borne of a realisation of the regrettable consistency with which life throws up discouragements. Likewise, there is something about being young that gives one a solemn faith in the pregnancy of life’s promises; a belief that its entire trajectory might be switched by one meaningful action. Ben and Margaret inhabit these two perspectives, albiet never in ways that are reducible to a binary. When they help each other, they do so in ways that are fitting of their age and experience, with all the blind spots and greater wisdoms that each entails.
Squall isn’t perfect. Its tone can sometimes feel untidy, drifting to places darker than quite work for the story. There is a shabby joke made at the expense of sex workers that rears its unfortunate head again and again. Yet any discussion of the film’s weaknesses should not dwarf how gentle the intentions of its makers are. Brennan is telling a story that he cares about and it shows.
It is also hard to critique the mechanics of a film that is concerned more with making its characters come alive than with doing everything perfectly. That so much of this review has been a discussion of the characters is perhaps proof that it succeeds. Certainly, Ben and Margaret are real enough by the end that Squall comes to feel like a snapshot of the brief intersection of two lives that will stretch indefinitely on. Everything is still deeply uncertain for these two, and Squall is wonderful to behold precisely because it doesn’t give any easy answers. It just looks at them.