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‘All of Us Strangers’ brilliance lies in youthful retrospection and queer reclamation

Andrew Haigh’s rift off Yamada Taichi’s 1987 novel Strangers hinges on great performances from the ensemble of Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Clare Foy, and Jamie Bell.

Parisa Taghizadeh / Searchlight Pictures

This review is published as part of DraftKings Network’s 2023 New York Film Festival coverage.

To say Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers is sad would be underselling the complex emotions and life scenarios the film beautifully investigates. It’s a revelation as much as a closed room and a breath of fresh air as much as a lump in the pit of your stomach. Imagine living a life where you have a significant part of your identity tucked away due to the unconscionable perceptions of the world. Then, tragedy strikes, and you can’t share those parts of you with the most important people in your life at an impressionable time of your upbringing.

Adam (Andrew Scott) lives in an apartment in a London highrise in a suspended state of contemplation. He’s a screenwriter struggling to put a story together and almost exists tucked away while his childhood pictures are placed in random rooms. One night, the fire alarm goes off, and upon going outside, he witnesses a man looking down at him from a window. When he returns, a man named Harry (Paul Mescal) approaches him with a raunchy, somewhat seductive proposition. Adam doesn’t oblige, instead electing to let him down gently with a certain sense of shy sensibilities. However, there is more to this random encounter than one might believe.

Drawing inspiration from Yamada Taichi’s 1987 novel Strangers, Haigh’s story is both one of a person trying to find a way to live within their sexuality comfortably and a ghost story. A big part of the reason Adam spends time alone as the frayed memories of photographs remind him of his solitude. He lost his parents (played by Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) in a car crash when he was 12 years old. Emotionally, Adam is still that child who craves guidance and closure – a reason he doesn’t allow himself to experience love. He’s only seen it from the perspective of being ripped away from him.

As All of Us Strangers establishes its main issues, it splits into two parallel parts. Adam travels to his childhood home and, much to our surprise, finds his parents existing at another time. While this may seem highly farfetched, this method of storytelling provides the substance that allows all three characters to understand one another locked away from the world. Each parent has a different reaction to Adam’s coming out story. His father hints that he picked up on it from Adam’s disinterest in sports and wishes he was there for him when younger Adam was in his room crying. Adam’s mother meets it with skepticism and unfounded 1980s stereotypes about AIDS and British societal homophobia that was running wild at the time.

Adam assures her things have gotten better, and it also feels like he’s saying it to himself. As he begins to untangle what these conversations mean, he opens up to experiencing a relationship. Harry is the polar opposite of Adam – he’s more forward, and a little more self-assured, but shares a different degree of ostracization from his family because of his queerness. While he didn’t lose them to horrible consequences, Harry lost touch with them over time – a theme that the queer-identifying community has to deal with because they want to be happy.

As they grow closer, Adam and Harry almost form like puzzle pieces. During sexual encounters, the camera work of Jamie D. Ramsay focuses on the intensity of touch – both something Harry has been waiting to give and Adam is almost afraid to receive. Over time, these characters fill in the blanks of each other's lives – while not as neat as one would expect. Haigh doesn’t allow All of Us Strangers to veer into a conventional LGBTQ love story, but rather one of contemplation. While Harry’s struggles are revealed at the end, a big part of Adam is still that young boy waiting for his parents to return home from a party.

At points in the film, there are visuals of bright colors, sunsets, and even an eclipse that drapes certain characters in red. Given the basis of this story, much of it feels like a dream. Despite this, it’s grounded enough that the sweetness doesn’t overtake the heavy realizations the audience learns along the way. Tragedy shapes us in ways we may only begin to know as we grow older. All of Us Strangers asks if we can allow someone the space to give a helping hand while we dismantle and rebuild the understandings of our youth,