On a Friday night after hanging out with his straight mates, Russell (Tom Cullen) heads out to a gay club, alone and on the pull. Just before closing time he picks up Glen (Chris New) and that weekend, in bars and in bedrooms, getting drunk and taking drugs, telling stories and having sex, the two men get to know each other. It is an encounter that will resonate throughout their lives.
SXSW: Weekend, writer/director Andrew Haigh’s affecting micro-love story, was the chatter of my colleagues here at SXSW even before it won the audience award last night in the 'Emerging Visions" category. After working with everyone from Ridley Scott to Harmony Korine as an editor, Haigh made the leap into directing in 2009 with Greek Pete, a drama documenting 'a year in the life of a rent boy." His second film, Weekend, is also set in London and takes a measure of the gay club scene, this time as more of a starting point than a way of life.
Russell (Tom Cullen) has steady work as a lifeguard, a steady social life with his largely heterosexual, breeding friends, and a seriously steady temperament to help him navigate the cutthroat cruising scene. As out as he wants to be, Russell is reserved by nature, but an opening scene depicting a Friday night take-away party among his friends suggests how alienating spending time with people who love you but don’t quite get you can be. But then Russell’s not in the habit of letting people get him. Leaving the party with excuses and apologies, he heads to a local gay bar to pull, and soon enough he’s home with Glen (Chris New), an artsy type who seems to enjoy tearing around on the placid surface of Lake Russell.
I’ve described them as types partly because a type is what they initially offer each other, as so many of us do in first and potentially fleeting encounters. The marvel of Haigh’s screenplay is the unobtrusive way it engages with the dance of presenting one’s self — or best, or chosen self — to a new partner; the opportunities for re-invention and fine tuning are endless. Shortly after the men wake up, Glen grabs his tape recorder and asks Russell to describe, in detail, what happened between them. He’s working on art project, he says, that explores the identity gap that opens up when a new person comes into your life. Put off by Glen’s provocations, Russell tolerates him until it’s time for work, and then it seems like goodbye.
But it’s only Saturday, and Weekend is just getting started. In the rough mould of a film like Before Sunrise, Haigh articulates an entire relationship by putting an acute focus on its beginnings. Glen surprises Russell at work — a rare show of interest that almost visibly opens Russell up. Haigh follows the men through several public and private spheres and proves an ingenious observer of those small but tough to capture moments that two people share when they actually start to engage, and not just test out personas and life stories. Glen reveals that he’s about to move abroad, and though Haigh is careful to maintain as an ultimately casual encounter — even as the principles clearly begin to hope otherwise — their time together grows more urgent.
With a uniquely intimate shooting style that balances the camera’s open gaze on the couple in private and the more furtive, observational angles adopted in public, Haigh creates a distinct and living world for his characters and finds different ways to express their experience of both their surroundings and each other. And the two are very much intertwined: Homophobia and the threat of persecution is a constant presence, and we are given a sense of it as a constant burden that the characters have learned to manage, but can’t escape. But the loveliest moments are the simplest and most human: Two people making time slow down long enough to gain the courage to peel back a vulnerability or two and test them against the air. Depending on your perspective and how well it’s told, that’s either a small story or a very, very large one.