San Sebastian 2023 review: Gamma Rays (Henry Bernadet)

“A fascinating and spirited excursion into the lives of a group of young people, the film captures the zeitgeist with incredible precision.”

Fifteen years since he made his directorial debut with the ambitious West of Pluto, Henry Bernadet has returned to film in the form of Gamma Rays, a fascinating social realist drama that focuses on the lives of a group of young people living in contemporary Canada, each one of them facing some kind of existential crisis or having to endure challenges relating to their everyday life. A simple film that moves at a rapid pace, using every one of its 100 minutes to plumb the emotional depths of these characters as they navigate various obstacles, the film is a unique and captivating experience that draws our attention not only to Bernadet’s precise skills when it comes to character development and social commentary, but also his steadfast artistry. A fascinating and spirited excursion into the lives of a group of young people, the film captures the zeitgeist with incredible precision, giving us meaningful glimpses into the lives of these people as they face the world and its many challenges.

The structure of Gamma Rays is very straightforward, and Bernadet is a filmmaker who understands the importance of simplicity. Most of the narrative takes the form of interconnected vignettes, each one focusing on the daily routine of one of the protagonists and how this routine slowly gets disrupted with the arrival of a relative in their quaint small town, a seemingly inconsequential event that changes their perception of not only the outside world but their own individual identities. It’s an effortlessly simple and captivating story that never feels impelled to do too much, understanding that restraint is a virtue and that a more subdued approach to some deeper themes is always optimal in creating a specific atmosphere. The balance of humour and nostalgia, combined with excellent work from the young actors (with Yassine Jabrane, Chris Kanyembuga and Chaïmaa Zineddine Elidrissi as the standouts from this cast) allows the film to take on many fascinating concepts.

In his endeavour to craft a film that provides a vibrant and unique glimpse into life in a small town, the director manages to do even more than we may have expected from a film with such a simple premise. Gamma Rays utilizes a social realist approach to showcase the diversity of contemporary Canada, and how this town is a melting pot of cultures and ethnicities which all exist together and create the vivid tapestry of a community. He makes use of mainly non-professional actors, placing them in scenarios in which they portray characters that are likely not too far removed from their background. Authenticity is always going to be an important quality for a film such as this, and Bernadet rarely has to resort to manipulating our emotions to get his point across. Instead he uses gentle humour and tender drama to explore the relationships between the young characters who are undergoing their own voyage of self-discovery, in which they encounter some of life’s more challenging components.

Gamma Rays is a film about the incredible importance of making meaningful connections throughout our lives, essentially a rousing but subtle manifesto on the human condition in its purest form. The film draws our attention to the characters as they explore their identities, and the story situates itself at the intersection between the examination of their multicultural identities (particularly the role they play within their individual cultures) and the general experience of growing up, navigating the challenges that come with the later years of adolescence. Combining the specificity of cultural identity with the universality of maturing allows Gamma Rays to be an insightful coming-of-age drama, taking the form of a series of tender moments between young people as they face various obstacles, which they discover are far easier to overcome when they find common ground. Meaningful, complex and profound, Bernadet has made quite an impressive return to cinema with this film, one of the year’s most captivating dramas.