Berlinale 2023 review: Silver Haze (Sacha Polak)

Silver Haze makes a powerful statement in favour of celebrating individuality and acknowledging that beauty is far more than just what we can see at the surface level.”

There are many fascinating qualities that have driven the career of Sacha Polak, who has been steadily growing as one of the exciting young names in contemporary cinema. Her work normally tends to reflect a deeper set of conversations, the likes of which are not often found in more traditional films, either because the industry has deemed them unworthy of too much attention, or simply because they were never viewed as being particularly urgent, especially since they frequently tackle intimate, personal stories that the director developed over time, through various interactions with a range of individuals, some of whom have found their way into her films. This is the case for Silver Haze, in which Polak tells the powerful and heartbreaking story of a young woman who has struggled to navigate a hostile world due to a fire that left her physically scarred and emotionally disturbed, with her efforts to bring the culprits to justice regularly failing due to the incompetence of the legal system, and the fact that it is far more difficult for an individual to go against a system that favours those in the upper echelons of society. It is a powerful and insightful film that calibrates its emotional content perfectly, capturing the spirit of rebellion and resilience that underpins this poignant depiction of someone who is adamant in seeking answers to help explain her lifetime of insecurity and suffering, even if it means putting her own freedom (and perhaps even her life) in danger, as she undergoes a quest for justice.

There are fascinating correlations between Silver Haze and the director’s previous film, the powerful Dirty God, which similarly followed the journey of a young woman suffering from severe injuries after being involved in an attack. Both films share the same leading performer, Vicky Knight, who continues to prove that she is an unquestionably promising young actor. Her experience as a survivor of a brutal acid attack was the inspiration for the previous film, and while she is here playing the victim of arson, she brings the same level of dedication and extraordinary commitment to this character. The film is primarily a character-based drama in which she portrays a young woman who navigates her way through a changing world, trying to balance her search for answers with her interactions with a range of other characters. They include another young woman (played by the equally compelling Esme Creed-Miles) with whom she soon starts a torrid affair, which brings its own set of challenges when our protagonist realizes that a relationship is not always easy to maintain, especially with the emotional baggage brought by both parties. Both characters are on a voyage of self-discovery, broken individuals who are brought together by their shared experiences with harsh domestic situations and mental illness, which they conceal under self-destructive behaviour. The actors at the heart of Silver Haze infuse the film with an honesty that elevates the story above a more conventional realist drama, capturing the existential complexity that is incredibly important to the overall experience we have with this specific narrative.

The theme of questioning one’s identity, or rather coming to terms with the fact that some are destined to have a more difficult journey than others, is central to Silver Haze, which prioritizes some very difficult conversations, understanding that a moment of discomfort or heartbreak is important for a film as defined by its humanity as this one. Beneath the very simple narrative is a powerful story about broader social issues – the film looks at queerness in a unique and compassionate way, with the relationship between the two protagonists being framed as one driven by not only desire, but acceptance. The source of attraction between the two is an ability to overlook the physical and psychological complexities that have followed them all their lives – unfortunately, these same qualities are at the heart of what eventually drives them apart. The film may have an abundance of empathy for these characters, but it is not unrealistic and does not portray their journey as linear, or their obstacles as easy to overcome. Instead, we follow Franky’s journey in which she finally comes to terms with the fact that she is an outsider, and that it will take far too long for society to ever adapt to those who don’t adhere to the status quo, whether by choice or through circumstance. The social issues that reside at the heart of Silver Haze can be difficult to face, but the story is handled with sensitivity, looking at these complex themes and allowing them the space to develop, without resorting to overwrought attempts at drawing on our sympathy, allowing the unconventional beauty of this narrative to speak for itself.

Silver Haze is a film that understands the potential for controversy – not necessarily in terms of the story itself, since even the most boundary-pushing elements are handled with the appropriate thoughtfulness and tact, a further example of Polak’s astonishing empathy as a storyteller – but rather in the issues that are brought up throughout the film. The industry often has trouble speaking about issues surrounding disability and the challenges faced by the LGBTQIA+ community without trivializing them. This film aims to resolve them through constructing a forthright and complex character-driven drama about a woman growing weary of existing on the outskirts of society, and choosing to demand the answers that she has sought for years, if only to get the closure she desperately requires to be at peace. The correlation between physical disability and queerness could have resulted in an overly melodramatic storyline, but the director’s incredible control of emotion helps circumvent this, as she frequently redirects our attention to the smaller details, those intricate components that ground the story and give it nuance and complexity. Ultimately, the overall message to be found at the heart of this film is the fact that many of us carry scars (whether physical or emotional), and that they are often indelible, so any attempt to conceal or erase them is only shifting the trauma. It is only through coming to peace with one’s own identity that the healing process can begin – and with beautiful writing, extraordinarily poetic direction and a small cast of impactful performances, Silver Haze makes a powerful statement in favour of celebrating individuality and acknowledging that beauty is far more than just what we can see at the surface level.

(c) Image copyright: Viking Film

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