One of the reasons Back to the Future has endured - besides being an expertly calibrated adventure with a charismatic lead, iconic imagery, and clockwork-perfect script - is the endlessly fascinating concept of meeting your own parents at the same age as you. Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers also explores that idea, though there are no flux capacitors or Enchantment Under the Sea dances here.
Loosely based on Japanese novelist Taichi Yamada’s Strangers (1987), Haigh’s adaptation is initially set in present-day London. But the high-concept hook sees the protagonist travelling back to his childhood home, only to interact with his parents, who - if you’ve got a torch to hold under your chin, now’s the time - died decades earlier when he was just a kid. That may sound like the start of a tale told at a sleepover, but this isn’t a ghost story in that sense. Though haunting and tense in places, this is not a chiller. The ghosts are of the past, the demons personal.
Writer/director Haigh works in the same naturalistic register that made his 2011 breakout Weekend so refreshingly disarming. He also brings several layers of specificity that really add depth. Screenwriter Adam (Andrew Scott) is living in a new-build London high-rise. It’s barely occupied, save for mysterious younger guy Harry (Paul Mescal), who’s also in one of the new apartments. A chance meeting ignites a spark between the two gay men, but Adam is hesitant to rush in.
As their relationship slowly takes shape, Adam, researching his latest project, heads to the suburban commuter town he grew up in and finds his parents' home. Played by Claire Foy and Jamie Bell, they’re relics of their time, but not caricatures. Given they both died before Adam came out, there’s a lot to unpack. All of Us Strangers is extremely sharp on changing attitudes and generational differences - not just between Adam and his parents, but also between Adam and the younger Harry (Adam can’t quite embrace the term ‘queer’, given how it was used in his formative years).
Both narrative strands are equally compelling. Scott - best known to date for Sherlock and Fleabag - fully delivers on his role’s promise. It’s all the more impressive a showcase given that he’s so restrained, his vulnerability nuanced. Even in the more heightened emotional moments, there’s never a shred of look-at-me self-consciousness. It’s hard not to imagine that supporting roles might become rarer for Mescal, given his current ascent, but (as in The Lost Daughter) he proves to be an extremely valuable secondary player. Charming, mysterious, and tender as the story demands, he’s magnetic, and his chemistry with Scott resonates.
Foy and Bell also do great work as Adam’s out-of-time parents. Some of their attitudes are dated, to an upsetting degree, but they remain human, warm. Despite the incongruous age difference (or lack thereof) between them and their son, their interactions feel natural and believable. Their meetings also lead to some extremely charged moments, when Adam gets to do what so many never get the chance to, and rake over unresolved parent-child issues with the benefit of hindsight.
The central conceit has an air of magic realism. It’s all presented rather matter-of-factly - at least at first, until Adam’s grasp on reality begins to feel somewhat tenuous, and his life starts to look like a waking nightmare. Haigh handles these tonal shifts deftly. From the gobsmacking opening shot of a London sunset, you feel like you’re in extremely safe hands. It’s easy to get lost in this world, and like Adam, you never want the visits back home to end. There’s also a superb use of '80s pop throughout, serving as a time capsule in itself.
It’s impressive how this puzzle box wraps up. It’s satisfying, emotional, and bold, without undercutting what has come before. Even if you sense where it might be heading early on, it’s no less rewarding for that. Told with economy, and evading any easy genre classification - it’s part romance, part fantasy, part thriller, and more besides - it’s a very moving piece of work, and a testament to the power of love.
All of Us Strangers is in US cinemas on December 22. Its UK release is TBC.