Stranger Things, the debut feature from British husband-and-wife directing duo Eleanor Burke and Ron Eyal, is a modest and heartfelt piece of naturalism. In the film, Oona (Bridget Collins) returns to her recently deceased mother’s seaside cottage to tidy up the place and prepare it to be sold. As we learn later, the mother/daughter relationship was strained, and Oona wasn’t exactly keen on pitching in even as her mother neared the end of her life. Enter Mani (Adeel Akhtar), a grungy drifter looking for a place to crash who mistakenly assumes the place is empty. After he climbs in through an unlocked window, Oona chases him off, but discovers he left behind a sketchbook, which reveals his artistic leanings. Her heart softened, Oona invites him to stay in a small shed on the edge of the property. Slowly but steadily, the two forge an unlikely friendship, born of mutual loneliness, complicated pasts, and a yearning for human connection.
While its humanistic themes seem familiar and somewhat hackneyed (the title itself is a punny summation of the storyline), Stranger Things is a tasteful, well-orchestrated drama that never reaches beyond its humble means. Burke, who also served as the film’s cinematographer, anchors the visuals in the hesitant interactions between Collins and Akhtar, who exhibit a natural chemistry that evolves organically throughout the pithy running time. But it’s the patient, measured use of montage that’s the film’s greatest virtue, perfectly aligned with the sleepy setting and somber narrative. Burke co-edited alongside Michael Taylor, editor of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet, and he brings to Stranger Things a similar sense of rhythm. The film tends to linger on Akhtar and Collins’s prolonged glances, with the filmmakers framing nearly every shot in a close-up. Depending on the tone of a particular scene, the results are either intrusive and uncomfortable or captivating and convivial.
Burke and Eyal also make tremendous use of their surroundings. The coastal countryside of southern England provides an earthy, almost paradisiac environ, while a purely diegetic soundscape comprised of chirping birds, comfy breezes, and crashing waves heighten the film’s naturalism. The tastefully reserved performances also lull viewers into the film’s world. Nary is a voice raised or an emotion betrayed, yet Askhtar and Collins are able to sustain a consistent emotional tenor, thanks in part to the filmmakers’ decision to shoot the story in script sequence. Because of its intimate setting and focused plotting, the film also suggests an acoustic, dressed-down version of Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine. As Stranger Things reaches a predictable but no less satisfying denouement, the film envisions a sense of lives lived and lives changed.