All of Us Strangers (2023)

Eerie ‘Strangers’ is best kind of ghost story

Who hasn’t fantasized about traveling back in time to engage in an adult conversation with our parents’ younger incarnations? I’m sure that’s particularly true for folks who’ve lost moms and dads at an early age, like Adam, the protagonist in Andrew Haigh’s shattering “All of Us Strangers.” He was 11 when they drove off to attend a holiday party and never returned. How does a child recover from such a blow? Haigh suggests you never do, and he offers up this wrenching ghost story to prove it.

It opens in the recent past, 30 years on from that horrible car crash. And Adam – today a lonely, 40ish, screenwriter – bears the emotional scars of not just growing up an orphan, but one ashamed of his gayness. The passage of time has rendered him no less repentant, which is obvious when Harry, a handsome, inebriated neighbor, knocks on his door seeking companionship. “No, thanks,” Adam responds in defiance of body language suggesting otherwise.

It’s a strange, awkward encounter, made even more peculiar by the fact that these two handsome men are the only residents in a posh London highrise. It’s the first of many breadcrumbs Haigh drops in a surreal tale of making peace with the past by learning to embrace the now.

In many ways, it’s a sort of companion piece to his acclaimed “45 Years,” in which an old married couple struggles to shed the chains of a long-repressed slight. But as great as Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay were in that picture, they were never ticketed for a journey into a four-dimensional “Twilight Zone” realm where a brief train ride whisks Adam back to 1987 and his childhood home where, to his shock, Mom and Dad still reside.

Having lost both of my parents, it was difficult not to envy Adam’s opportunity to square things face to face armed with the benefit of hindsight.

Clearly, Adam, played marvelously by Andrew Scott, is Haigh’s thinly veiled surrogate in what is very much an exorcism of long-simmering regrets, particularly over his parents never having known him as a gay man. To sweeten the pot, their paranormal reunion unfolds inside Haigh’s actual childhood home outside London.

In adapting a novel by Taichi Yamada, who died Nov. 29, Haigh has crafted an intricate screenplay that doesn’t shy away from the AIDS-fueled homophobia so prevalent in the Reagan-Thatcher era of vilification. When Adam informs his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) of his sexuality, they react accordingly, with anger and distance. At least initially.

The movie’s lifeblood is in how the three learn to grasp the meaning of acceptance and the peace of mind it brings. As if that wasn’t enough, Haigh cleverly interweaves Adam’s voyage into the past with the very real attraction he develops for Paul Mescal’s Harry, who shares Adam’s inclination toward self-loathing. Their lovemaking is intense and Scott and Mescal sell it with the added bonus of sparkling chemistry.

There’s also an unmistakable eeriness looming over both the past and the present that is reflective of the film’s underlying mysticism. Is this leading to some sort of “Sixth Sense” gotcha moment? Or, is it something much deeper, richer and more real? No spoilers here, just be aware that the payoff packs a wallop, every bit as heartwrenching as it is hopeful.

Like the best “Twilight Zone” episodes, “Strangers” fully embraces emotional sci-fi to leave a lasting impression. It’s not perfect. A scene in which an adult Adam, dressed in his red childhood jammies, climbs into bed with his parents borders on silly. There are also a couple of contrivances too many, but in the grand scheme of things, these are minor flaws in an otherwise impactful story of “what if?” Think of it as a catharsis, one involving wish fulfillment, but also one to which we all can relate, perhaps more than we’d like.

Movie review

All of Us Strangers

Rated: R for language, some drug use and sexual content

Cast: Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy and Jamie Bell

Director: Andrew Haigh

Writer: Andrew Haigh, based on a novel by Taichi Yamada

Runtime: 105 minutes

Grade: B+

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