This year’s London Film Festival has officially begun and the first film on my watchlist was French-Arabic drama, Memory Box. Directed by acclaimed directors Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Memory Box tells the story of French-Canadian teenager Alex (Paloma Vauthier) who feels disconnected from her mother, Maia (Rim Turki) who seems to keep her daughter at an emotional distance. When a large mysterious box arrives containing all sorts of notebooks, tapes and photographs chronicling Maia’s teenage years in Beirut during wartime, Alex begins to see her mother in a new light and in doing so becomes connected to her own Arabic roots.
Memory Box opens with video messages within a group message as the individuals within the group record their audio and visual thoughts as a severe blizzard makes it way to Montreal. Within the first few scenes, we get an idea of how the younger generation has become so accustomed to oversharing every thought that the contrast between the way Alex communicates with friends is so different to how her mother acts. As she tries to converse with Maia, she is constantly shut off and struggles to connect on an emotional level due to Maia’s lack of sharing. What is interesting about Memory Box is that Maia’s memories are kept in physical items utilizing all sorts of mediums which are then combined by Alex to create a fuller picture. There is so much to unpick in how both mother and daughter record their thoughts and how they react emotionally to difficult situations. As Alex delves further into Maia’s memories, she begins to realise that the latter went through similar issues that she is experiencing such as friendship issues, boy troubles, and more. The difference in landscape allows Alex to fully visualise the place where her family comes from without having actually visited. We see Alex begin to tap into her Arabic heritage and appreciate it more as she learns about the struggle that her mother and grandmother went through.
In the lead role as Alex, Paloma Vauthier delivers a beautifully nuanced performance that is filled with curiosity and an eagerness to learn more about her mother and where she came from. Initially, the memories and belongings seem scattered and random but Alex soon manages to piece them together and create a reimagining of her mother’s history that allows her to feel closer and more sympathetic towards her. Vauthier brings a highly emotional performance that draws the audience in and encourages the viewer to join her on her journey. Not only is this film exploring Maia’s past but also how the past has influenced Alex’s life, even though she never lived in Beirut.
Playing Adult Maia is Rim Turki who provides a flawless performance that feels guarded and disconnected, working perfectly against Vauthier’s openly emotional performance. Maia’s guarded nature isn’t entirely understood at the start of the film, but as we begin to learn more about her life as a teenager in war torn Beirut, we begin to understand how these events have led her to be as she is. Refusing to even look in the box, Maia forbids Alex from rummaging through her things in a bid to keep her past in the past. However, it seems that the past, as painful as it is, had to be revisited so Maia could tap into her heritage as well and remember what her life was like in a bid to find peace with what happened and reconnect with old friends and family. Turki pulls this off beautifully and works really well onscreen with Vauthier as their relationship seems completely relatable and authentic.
As Alex delves into her mother’s memory box, she begins to paint a picture of what her mother was like as a teenager. Rather than just rely on Alex’s reactions and descriptions, we see these memories played out with Manal Issa delivering a great turn as Young Maia who is desperate to find love. Issa’s performance is more akin to Vauthier’s in that she is on a discovery to find out who she is as a person and wondering what the future has in store. As Maia develops romantic feeling for local boy, Raja, her relationship between her parents, especially her mother, begins to wane as they restrict her from seeing him. It is through this turbulent relationship with her own mother that Alex begins to find a common ground between the two of them. Although they never share the screen, Issa and Vauthier’s performances feel connected throughout the film thanks to the way that the writing and structure of the film merges the narratives of both characters.
Overall, Memory Box marked a wonderful start to my London Film Festival experience thanks to its nuanced portrayal of memory and heritage and how memories can form connections between generations. Hadjithomas and Joreige’s direction paired with the beautifully subtle performances from the cast make this film an accurate portrayal of how place and identity is like a puzzle with pieces and we see this draw Alex and Maia together as they begin to share a common ground.
Memory Box is showing at this year’s London Film Festival!