For the London youths of Lotus Eaters, life is a seamless string of house parties filled with pretty girls and reckless guys breaking their hearts ever so slowly. When they wake up in the morning, and with no rush to go anywhere, they sip on thick European coffee from actual ceramic cups, smoke cigarettes, and complain to friends about inanities. Their relationships are, surprisingly, never really mediated by digital gadgets. The closest thing to a technological apparatus keeping girl and boy apart is a guitar, in the film's sweetest scene, when Charlie (Johnny Flynn) serenades Alice (a flawless Antonia Campbell-Hughes) with an acoustic version of “Papa Was a Rodeo” as she wallows in frustration, at once fighting off and surrendering to his reluctant love for her. She wears her pain rather timidly, as if too embarrassed to admit the absurd violence of her situation (he loves drugs so much more than he'll ever love her), let alone translate it into more than just a half-shed tear.
It's a beautiful, yet rare moment in the film where the authenticity of its visual language finds an equivalent match in its substance. Lotus Eaters is shot in black and white and abides by its own editing code. The free spirit-ness of its characters is certainly mirrored in the film's aesthetic playfulness (sudden silences, slow motion, and rhythmic choppiness), but the initial glimmer of Fassbinder-esque expression (poesis disguised in quotidian dialogue among friends) quickly veers toward Xavier Dolan-grade affectation. There's rarely enough gravitas to hold up director Alexandra McGuinness's visual investments.
It's a relief to see McGuinness's camera freely roam around the characters' decadent habitats, to find unusual elements to their fun (cocaine lines and hula hoops) and to nuance their fraught relationships with asymmetry. Their faces are deceptively angelic, their mascara impeccable, and they even read books on grass wearing flamboyant fur. But there's nothing particularly compelling about the narrative itself when the camera doesn't zero in on Alice and Charlie's precarious love affair that wasn't. For all of its pretty mise-en-scène and impressionistic montage ambitions, the last sequence in particular, Lotus Eaters feels pleasurable and purposeful when it doesn't try so hard, like a teenager, to prove its authenticity. Interestingly, the drama is to be found in the complete lack of manifested drama between the characters. Alice doesn't plead for Charlie's love with the uttering of a word, but with the gentle batting of her doll-like eyes. And it's Charlie's smile that responds to her. Not with a yes, or a no, but with a treacherously charming smile to keep her trapped, and guessing.