Dutch director Sacha Polak teams up again with Vicky Knight, a British actress and a star of her previous film Dirty God, in her new film Silver Haze, which premieres at this year's Berlinale's Panorama section.
Knight, who sustained serious burn on one third of her body as a child, plays Franky, a young woman who is a victim of a fire and carries the stigma both flesh and mind. Her East End family home is a mess - mom, an alcoholic who never recovered from her husband leaving for another woman, a younger sister who has yet to find her identity and an older male relative who is not quite the role model.
Even though Franky is sleeping with a local boy, everyone close to her knows that she has lesbian tendencies. While working as a nurse at a hospital, she befriends a suicidal patient Florence (Esme Creed-Miles) and starts seeing her after being discharged.
Florence, a young woman from a wealthy family, has been staying with Jack, her autistic brother, in the home of family friend Alice (Angela Bruce), an old black woman dying of cancer, near the beach in the south of London. Forever moody and unpredictable, Florence warns Franky that she is a bad person.
Yet, Flo is the first person who makes Franky smile in a long time. She is the person who encourages her to come out of a shell. For the first time since she got burned, Franky can go out to swim, exposing her scarred body to the world.
But Flo is also a bad influence on Franky. She's Franky's id personified. After arguing and breaking up and disappearing for days on end many times, Flo encourages Franky to firebomb her dad's new house where he lives with his new family. It is dad's new wife whom she believes is not only responsible for the breakup of her family but also for setting a fire in the pub where she got burned.
Franky finds a makeshift family in Alice's home, away from daily bullying, physical, verbal abuses, and self-doubt. It is Jack, who has no filters, tells like it is, that the fire where Franky got burned might not have been an arson, that it could have been caused by a lot of different things, exposing Franky's hate and anger, and her desire to put a blame on one person all her life might have been willfully misdirected and a self-denial.
Like the cannabis strain that Franky grows with care, where the title comes from, the film is about the smoke screens as a defensive mechanism to cope with life's traumatic events. But somehow you will need to face the reality to move on.
In the tradition of British kitchen-sink realism of Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold, and humanist makeshift family dramas of Kore-eda, Polak and Knight create an emotionally resonant film about forgiveness and finding peace via self-reflexive storytelling. Knight is a natural born actress and the camera (captured by DP Tibor Dingelstad) adores her.
Her brevity in using her life story and stigma she carries on screen is quite remarkable. Sensitively written and directed with clear eyes, Silver Haze is a great little gem and the first great discovery of 2023.
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com