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Memory Box review – visually inventive nostalgia trip lacks real drama

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige helm an intriguing but featherlight film about a teenager who delves into her mother's past

The past arrives in the form of an unexpected delivery in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige's coming-of-age drama Memory Box, a film inspired by the pair's own journals and photographs from their time growing up in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. It's a work that evokes a real sense of what it's like to remember, delivering a hit of pure, infectious nostalgia, along with storytelling that's a bit on the fuzzy side.

The delivery in question arrives in present day Montreal on Christmas Eve, a box addressed to single mother Maia (Rim Turki) from her old best friend. Maia's secrecy over what's inside, however, compels her teenage daughter Alex (Paloma Vauthier) to dig through the contents in private. What she uncovers is a treasure trove of documents relating to her mother's enigmatic teenage years: diary entires, photographs, cassette tapes, the lot.

Just as these snapshots allow Alex to imagine her mother as a teenager not so unlike herself, the film offers a window into an 80s Beirut on the cusp of change, the archive brought to life via flashbacks, animated segments, and inspired visual edits that bind the past and present into one fluid whole. As the war in Lebanon unexpectedly displaces an entire people, we witness the fallout as a kind of moving tapestry, Hadjithomas and Joreige's skill as professional artists inflicting the film with a unique, experimental flavour.

It's a visually intoxicating experience, but the drama itself falls a little on the bland side, with characters appearing more like empty vessels designed to push the concept than three-dimensional people. There's also a Hallmark-y feel to the scenes set in the modern day. The film works best whenever it sidelines sentimentality in favour of more hard-hitting notions about war and displacement, or leans into the ways our memories – which can seem so infallible – often deceive us. As a love letter to the inherent worth of physical media and its cross-generational value, though, this is still a box worth opening.

Memory Box is now showing in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.

Where to watch

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