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Hoai-Tran Bui

2023’s Best Ghost Movie Redefines the Genre With a Time-Bending Twist

— Searchlight Pictures

To say that Adam is lonely would be an understatement. In the exquisitely devastating All of Us Strangers, Adam (Andrew Scott) lives in a sleek London apartment block that’s still under renovation and empty apart from him and a handful of other similarly isolated residents. He spends his days going to and from work, dozing off on the commute before drinking himself into oblivion at night.

But one day, the daily monotony of his life is interrupted by the casual flirtation of Harry (Paul Mescal), his young, attractive neighbor. Flirtation eventually grows into a relationship, one that Adam, who came out of the closet later in life, has a little trouble adjusting to. As the connection deepens, Adam finds himself visiting his childhood home, where his mother (Claire Foy) and father (Jamie Bell), are inexplicably alive and happy to see him — the strangest development of all, since the two of them perished in a car crash when he was a child.

All of Us Strangers is a curious type of ghost story, one that plays with the constructs of time and genre to uncover a deeper emotional core. Adam isn’t haunted by the ghosts of his parents as much as he somehow slips through time, giving him the chance to talk to them as he knew them, but as an adult. By turning these ghostly visitations into warm fantasies in which Adam gets to finally have the time with his parents that he was deprived of, writer-director Andrew Haigh transforms this loose adaptation of Taichi Yamada’s 1987 novel Strangers into a cathartic expression of more than just grief, but one of becoming.

All of Us Strangers has a deep sense of melancholy penetrating every frame. Orphaned at such a young age and growing up gay in the ‘80s left Adam feeling like an outsider to both the LGBTQ community and himself. His self-inflicted isolation plays out in the film’s vast empty spaces and the deep blue and purple color palette. Adam is surrounded by the emptiness of space — whether it be the literal emptiness of his cold, ultra-modern apartment building or the blurred, frenzied space of a gay dance club Harry takes him to. But when he flees into the welcome embrace of his long-dead parents, the colors immediately warm up and become a little grainy. It’s almost as if he stepped into an old Christmas card from the ‘80s, but it’s a Christmas card that talks back and, occasionally, even rejects him.

Adam soon learns these surreal visitations with his ghostly parents aren’t escapist fantasies. Instead, they’re manifestations of his unresolved emotions and the life he never got to live. It’s during these visits that he gets to finally come out to his parents, and they react not with warmth, but with the awkward nervousness and distress befitting 1980s parents. They fight and fall out with Adam, but ultimately, they apologize for how they failed him when they were alive.

Both Foy and Bell are tremendous as Adam’s unnamed parents. Foy is fragile and anxious, like any doting mother, but it’s Bell who gives one of the year’s most quietly devastating supporting performances, all repressed emotion and tightly wound hypermasculinity. Even this fantasy version of Adam’s father has trouble relating to him, until a shattering scene when he sits down next to Adam and tells him, “I'm sorry I never came in your room when you were crying.” It’s just one of many scenes that feels like a huge exhale being released.

These jaunts to the past are interwoven with gentle moments between Adam and Harry, which slowly break down Adam’s stony exterior. Harry, as Mescal plays him, is the perfect boyfriend — almost too caring and understanding of Adam’s standoffish nature. But there’s such a naked sentimentality to their relationship, along with a steamy chemistry between Scott and Mescal, that you quickly get swept up in the romance.

Mescal is a generous screen partner, but All of Us Strangers is easily Andrew Scott’s movie. Scott is vulnerable, wary, cold, and desperately affectionate all at once. He carries the movie through its tonal crests and waves as hazy fantasies start to blur with reality. Watching All of Us Strangers can sometimes feel like falling into a daydream, but Scott grounds the film and makes all of its emotions feel painfully sharp and real. And when All of Us Strangers comes to its staggering crescendo, it’s Scott who becomes a comforting anchor with an arc that feels so satisfying for a character drifting aimlessly through life until now.

All of Us Strangers is one of the most remarkable riffs on the ghost story in years, injecting new life into a genre that was always defined by horror and grief. While its metaphysical twists are of an ilk to recent “parental catharsis” movies like Petit Maman, Turning Red, and The Boy and the Heron, All of Us Strangers’ bittersweet underpinnings and tender romance make it feel one-of-a-kind.

All of Us Strangers opens in select theaters December 22.

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