Joanna Hogg is one of the most interesting working directors that you most likely haven't heard of. In the four features she's made, starting Unrelated in 2007, she's carved out a very peculiar but rewarding niche of crafting sedate character dramas after the fashion of Γ‰ric Rohmer, but charged with the kind of overwhelming Englishness that could only come from somebody with a name like "Joanna Hogg". That is to say, there's an unfussy pragmatism lying in the heart of her quiet philosophical plays of upper-middle-class people poorly navigating life and relationships as they find themselves trapped in the geometry of gorgeous houses.

The Souvenir, her fourth feature, is by far the most widely-seen film of her career, most likely because it got snapped up by cult-favorite distributor A24 for its release in the United States, and I am sorry to say that it's also her weakest film to date. Which is not the same as being weak in an absolute sense, mind you. It is, at the very least, a sharp mood piece, looking back to Hogg's days in film school in the 1980s (when the film is set, to little obvious aesthetic gain other than on the soundtrack); her alter-ego here being Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), an ambitious young woman whose plans get derailed when she crosses paths with Anthony (Tom Burke), a substantially older man (Burke is 16 years older than Byrne; there's no clear indication of his character's age, but that seems reasonable). He's pointedly not a particularly appealing person: he has unexceptional if not slightly below-average looks, he has a routine job and no compelling interests, he's not witty or well-spoken, he doesn't have any keen insights into life, and he's uncommonly happy to spend Julie's money. But he says some things that are nice to Julie and uplifting, sometimes, and so she doesn't push back very hard as he wriggles his way into a romantic relationship with her. And shortly after that, she learns about his heroin addiction.

I have encountered a dispiriting number of criticisms that The Souvenir is a broken movie because it's so inexplicable that Julie would become so attached the Anthony despite his all-but-complete absence of positive characteristics, so the whole thing is boring, pointless, plotless. Boring and plotless are hard things to dispute, but of course Julie's ill-advised romance is the point. Anybody older than college age themselves who can't name a single acquaintance who has ended up in a longish-term relationship with an obviously terrible person, even if they haven't ended up in that relationship themselves, is living a most blessed life indeed. If the film seems unsatisfying, directionless, and frustrating; if watching Julie get herself enmeshed with Anthony more or less as a matter of pure inertia puts us in the position of feeling immensely sorry for her while wondering how she could be that stupid; well that is the point, really, and Hogg's game here is to present Julie's youthful mistakes without a scrap of nostalgic sentiment (how much of this happened to Hogg I can't say, and I really don't suppose it matters, but she at any rate obviously identifies with Julie), but with the understanding of an older woman who remembers clearly what it was to be in her early 20s, and would rather forgive her alter ego than pass judgment. The point is that young people make mistakes, and The Souvenir asks us to let them do so, knowing that for nearly all of them, they'll survive the experience well enough to e.g. become critically well-regarded film directors two or three decades down the road.

That's the other thing the film is up to: it's a movie about how ambitious young artists who don't know what the fuck they're doing learn to be better. Julie is not presented as a gifted, natural talent; she's prone to getting in over her head and trying to grapple with Big Ideas before she's figured out how to do the little stuff properly. If this is Hogg's portrayal of her own learning curve, she's maybe being a bit hard on herself; her thesis film, Caprice, is a joyous bit of applied cinephilia that doesn't seem to draw from the "write what you know and only what you know" lesson that Julie learns only by severely messing up in doing the opposite (Caprice stars a baby-faced Tilda Swinton, Swinton Byrne's own mother, who appears in a small role as Julie's mother; this feels more like a favor that Swinton has done for her daughter and Hogg than an acting exercise that she was deeply invested in). But the idea that Julie needs access to real-world emotions rather than the prefab emotions she's been trying to work with, that feels a bit truer, and much more in line with the filmmaker Hogg became decades later, one whose work is built upon the smallest expressions of feeling in the most sedate settings.

The Souvenir is small, all right, and it is sedate, and in its best moments, this makes it a powerfully moving, sympathetic portrait of a young artist who is deeply confused about herself and life. One of the obvious stand-out scenes finds Julie learning from an older ex-film student (Richard Ayoade) about how much bullshit film school is, and also how much bullshit Anthony is, where the editing sends the camera skittering from one seemingly innocuous angle to another in a pattern that's all wrong both rhythmically and spatially, as if Julie's dismay at hearing all of this is causing her to rush around the room like a panicking cartoon character. But the best moments are quieter than that, centered around an abnormally low camera angle that makes restaurants and homes feel oppressive and cold, or a bit of blocking that exaggerates Anthony's smug superiority by showing how his eyeline doesn't match Julie's, or the like.

Hogg's best work has always hinged on those two things - unexpected camera angles and blocking that foregrounds faces in shots much too wide to foreground faces - so it's no surprise at all that The Souvenir has them. Disappointingly, it doesn't have them enough. Entire scenes play out in a fashion that I can only think to call "indie standard", with jaggedy hand-held camera work and shot/reverse-shot combining to make sure that we're noticing what the script has the characters say, because that's where all the work of the drama is being done, and this isn't an approach that suits this scenario. The fact is, The Souvenir is an astoundingly listless story: I have surely made it sound more packed with incident than it is, and I don't think I've really made it sound particularly active at all. In Hogg's other films, with their merciless, locked-down wide shots, nothingness can produce ample undercurrents, teased out through mild fluctuations in the rhythm of cutting or staging. Here, nothingness feels kind of like nothing a lot of the time, especially in the first half, where almost all of the most pedestrian style happens. I still admire the hell out of the precise miniatures of human behavior Hogg can pull out of her actors, and Swinton Byrne's mildly amused rueful performance style is terrific for the anti-nostalgic approach of the material, but the thing is, if you called any of the director's earlier films "boring" (which they all are), I'd have fought you on it. And if you called The Souvenir, I'd have to admit you're not wrong. And that is a disappointment, small or otherwise.