“Across the Sea” takes a while to build interest as it follows a somewhat dislikable protagonist from New York back to her native Turkey, where she has to face what she gave up in moving abroad. But this leisurely first feature for Esra Saydam and Nisan Dag — like their heroine, U.S.-based Turkish expats — is ultimately rewarding in its (still low-key) climactic confrontations and attractive packaging. Already released in theaters in Turkey, the film will be strictly a niche item here, with fest awards accumulated so far (including a narrative feature audience prize at Slamdance last month) likely to boost its prospects in attracting home-format and possibly limited theatrical distribution.
Damla (Damla Sonmez) is heavily pregnant, living in Manhattan with a husband, Kevin (Jacob Fishel), who adores her. But she doesn’t seem very happy about any of that, as evidenced by the cigarettes and booze she sneaks even in her advanced condition. She ducks repeated, pleading phone messages from relatives, and seems averse to going back home, but her husband’s eagerness to meet her family finally wins out. They’re given a warm welcome by cousin Nayla (Sanem Oge) and her husband, Sabri (Hakan Karsak), both of whom take an immediate shine to the good-natured Kevin.
But the reasons behind Damla’s reluctance become clearer once we gauge that she has unfinished business with their neighbor Burak (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), a handsome bar owner who was her longtime “friend.” He, too, is now in a different relationship. But her abrupt departure some years ago for America — ostensibly in pursuit of a better education, career and overall independence — left a mutual wound that still smarts.
Nearly an hour passes before these two central figures finally interact, their brief exchange of mingled desire and resentment gaining further momentum when Kevin realizes just why their unborn child has already been named “Burak.” Later, amid the tension exacerbated by a pickup soccer game, he spills to grown-up Burak a bitter secret that Damla had sworn her ex-sweetheart already knew — which turns out not to be the case, to everyone’s horror.
These later events considerably ramp up involvement after a borderline-aimless first half that depends rather too much on the allure of the resort-town setting (picturesque Ayvalik, on the Aegean coast) and of a pretty yet often petulant and off-putting heroine. In one of the few moments that reveal something about their past, Burak tells Damla she was always a “psychopath,” a demanding brat for whom no amount of indulgence was ever enough. It’s a relief when we realize Kevin isn’t entirely blind to her faults, either, though for him it’s a ruder awakening.
Relying more on atmosphere and nuance than dialogue, the co-writers/directors (who have said the story is inspired by their own emotional sacrifices to career hopes as emigres) risk providing too little narrative substance. But the pic’s final stretch delivers the needed payoff, while still resisting overt melodrama.
Performances are aptly naturalistic, reflecting characters averse to open conflict, while presentation is handsome without being overly prettified; the beachside locations are at once inviting and a recognizably everyday neighborhood. Polished tech/design contributions are highlighted by John Wakayama Carey’s widescreen lensing and Kyle Woodworth’s discreet score.
Film Review: 'Across the Sea'
Reviewed online, San Francisco, Feb. 18, 2015. (In Slamdance Film Festival; 2014 Warsaw, Istanbul, Raindance film festivals.) Running time: 103 MIN. (Original title: “Deniz seviyesi”)
(Turkey-U.S.) A Karlakum Film and Sand & Snow Films presentation. (International sales: Dodgeville Films, New York.) Produced by Esra Saydam, Gerry Kim, Robert Gadol Lavenstein, Alvaro R. Valente. Executive producer, Esen Blake. Co-producer, Mayuran Tiruchelvam.
Directed, written by Esra Saydam, Nisan Dag. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), John Wakayama Carey; editor, Ozcan Vardar; music, Kyle Woodworth; production designer, Neslihan Arslan; costume designer, Ayse Yildiz; sound, Micah Bloomberg; sound designer/re-recording mixer, Umut Senyol; assistant director, Ulas Parlakyildiz; casting, Ezgi Baltas, Kate Murray.
Damla Sonmez, Ahmet Rifat Sungar, Jacob Fishel, Hakan Karsak, Sanem Oge, Ozum Ersoy, Stuart Zagnit, Mert Bulgan, Ayca Yagcioglu, Elif Urse, Sinan Eczacibasi. (Turkish, English dialogue)