Credit: James Vaughan
by Steven Warner Featured Film Horizon Line

Friends and Strangers — James Vaughan

February 24, 2022

Friends and Strangers has plenty on its mind and is expertly crafted, but it fails to fully coalesce into a cogent whole.

Friends and Strangers, the feature-length debut from writer-director-editor James Vaughan, opens with shots of drawings and paintings depicting the colonization of Australia, all connected by the brutality of their imagery. We are then immediately thrust into present-day Sydney, static shots of the city highlighting the concrete-and-steel skyscrapers that loom large over our protagonists, Alice (Emma Diaz) and Ray (Fergus Wilson). Ray comments on the literal trash that subsumes the lower echelons of the city, the camera lovingly revealing the debris and rubbish that clogs the ravines beneath. This is then contrasted by Alice and Ray’s decision to head into the wilderness for a weekend hiking expedition, with the vast beaches and breathtaking landscapes spotlighting the land’s natural beauty. Yet one begins to wonder: what does any of this have to do with the tentative and ultimately fractured relationship that develops between these two former friends over the course of the next two days? The film then abruptly cuts to several months later, where Ray and a friend head over to a client’s place to receive details on an upcoming wedding videography gig. The infinitely wealthy gentleman shows off his lavish home, which is adorned with pieces of art highlighting the Queen mum and the notorious Kelly gang, while the house is made of completely hollow walls. The owner grills Fergus on the ultimate direction of his life and career, and poses each question in a way that obfuscates more than clarifies, to the point that the entire interaction seems like a Lynchian fever dream.

A title card at film’s end highlights that the film was “Shot on the lands of the Eora and Ngunnawal Peoples.” Friends and Strangers is the work of a filmmaker who clearly has a lot on his mind in regards to the troubled history of his homeland, its current state, and the people who make up its population. The problem is that Vaughan’s ambitions never coalesce into a greater whole. The first half is especially peculiar: so much is made of the potential relationship between Alice and Ray, yet nothing ever comes of it, and Alice goes AWOL for most of the film’s remainder. As the title makes clear, this is very much a film of the connections and relationships that bind us, sometimes in ways we barely even realize, similar to how we are all bound to our country’s own history, the effects of our ancestors’ actions rippling through time. This may also be a nod to the current generation’s seeming solipsism, their interest lying only in their own petty problems and relationships, highlighted by Alice and Ray’s interactions with middle-aged men where the only goal seems to humor their recollections of “the good old days.” Yet everything ironically feels disconnected, with random shots of state-sanctioned statues and sculptures highlighting the land’s colonization filling in the gaps, a visual metaphor as sledgehammer.

Friends and Strangers would be easier to write off as the half-baked ramblings of an overzealous intellectual, though, if it wasn’t for Vaughan’s complete command of craft. On a purely technical level, this is an incredibly well-made feature, its carefully composed static shots highlighting both the beauty of the land and the rot that lies just below eye level; there is a vibrancy and richness to the imagery that is truly exquisite. Vaughan’s inventiveness is especially on display as Ray makes his way to the home of his wealthy client. A musical score filled exclusively with the haunting echoes of violin and cello fills the soundtrack, the work of an obnoxious neighbor proudly displaying the limitless features of his expansive home sound system. Indeed, the sum of the sound design here is stunning, as the score mixes with the nonsensical ramblings of the owner and centers viewers in the mindset of the increasingly intoxicated Ray, creating a sense of droll dread that would feel at home in the works of Yorgos Lanthimos. Not a small compliment, to be sure, and Friends and Strangers certainly makes one anxious to see what Vaughan will tackle next; ideally, an effort in which his ambitious ideas are more acutely realized.

Originally published as part of New Directors/New Films 2021 — Dispatch 2.