A coming-of-age story that deftly explores contemporary social issues and themes of white privilege and migration.
Tackling contemporary social issues and the themes of white privilege and migration through the lens of a coming-of-age story can seem somewhat imprudent. However, Carolina Hellsgård’s third feature deftly dodges the trappings these tricky topics throw her way and avoids the tropes lesser filmmakers would have bulldozed towards.
Sunburned is her follow-up to last year’s feminist post-apocalyptic zombie feature Endzeit – Ever After. It follows 13-year old Claire (Zita Gaier), who is on holidays with her mother and sister at a resort hotel in southern Spain. Neglected by her mother (Sabine Timoteo), who is too busy flirting with a dishy instructor, and the fast becoming a source of embarrassment for her older sister Zoe (Nicolais Borger), she wanders the beach alone. There, she befriends Amram (Gedion Oduor Wekesa), a young Senegalese beach vendor. As their friendship develops, so does her desire to help him in any way she can, even if it means unintentionally making things worse.
There are so many things the film gets right, chiefly its layered storytelling. There are echoes of Sebastian Schipper’s Roads, which also centres on a clash of continents, but Sunburned pushes things further. Everything from family dynamics to the interpersonal relationships are incredibly well executed, as a lot is left unsaid and expressed through micromovements. It’s a testament to Hellsgård as a storyteller that she trusts the script and her cast to convey subtle emotions without falling back on tell-don’t-show tactics. The sparse dialogue works in the film’s favour and is paired with two superb central performances from Zita Gaier and Gedion Oduor Wekesa (last seen in the brilliant 2018 Berlinale-premiering Styx). Gaier in particular, whose character finds herself in the knotty crawlspace between childhood and adolescence, sells her character’s loneliness without ever coming off as brattish or listless.
Of particular note is how Hellsgård and her DP Wojciech Staroń evocatively navigate the landscapes and locations. The stale architecture of the white apartment blocks and the hotel corridors feature omnipresent turquoise hues that tease a melancholic tone linked to a profound sense of loss, and allows a feeling of isolation to permeate. The preference on the indoors rather than the outdoors creates claustrophobia, and in some cases highlights the gulf between the so-called security of institutionalised tourism and the real world outside that facilitates a social status quo. This meaningful clash between the interior and the exterior is also mirrored in the fluorescent pink lights and sanitised dance bangers of the discotheque, which underline how stuck the three main female protagonists are in their existence.
Ultimately, Sunburned is a tender and nuanced story of family, the loss of childhood, and of two outsiders whose backgrounds and situations couldn’t be more different, and who yet both share a longing for something more. At no point does Hellsgård equate their struggles and her approach to the material makes the film soar. Unlike her previous features, the director distances herself from ‘genre’ filmmaking here and shows to what extent she’s one of the most subtle storytellers and versatile filmmakers out there.
Sunburned / Directed by Carolina Hellsgård (Germany, Netherlands, Poland, 2020), with Zita Gaier, Gedion Oduor Wekesa, Nicolais Borger, Sabine Timoteo. Starts July 02.