Moin Hussain’s intriguing arthouse tale of alienation in modern Britain plays out in Critics Week

Sky Peals

Source: Venice Film Festival

‘Sky Peals’

Dir/scr: Moin Hussain. UK. 2023. 91mins

What if there was a legitimate reason for always feeling that you don’t belong? In Moin Hussain’s droll, mournful debut feature, a man starts to question his discomfort with the world and address the mysteries that lie in his family’s past. An intriguing premise builds into a melancholy exploration of loneliness, isolation and belonging. The delicate handling and lugubrious pace create a distinctive work but might also be limiting in terms of theatrical potential; festival interest is much more certain following a world premiere in Venice Critics Week.

Hussain seasons his melancholy story with moments of dry, deadpan comedy 

A Screen Star Of Tomorrow in 2018, writer/director Hussain has made a number of admired shorts including Real Gods Require Blood (2017) and Naphtha (2018) which both played Critics Week in Cannes. Sky Peals (previously entitled Birchanger Green) focuses on Adam (Faraz Ayub), a young British-Pakistani man who lives alone and works night shifts in the kitchen at the Big Burger Trip. An overwhelming world seems to be in constant motion whilst he is slow, measured and unobtrusive. Ayub, best known for a string of television credits including Screw (2022) and Innocence (2022), plays Adam as mild-mannered, apologetic and anxious about every human encounter. He rarely makes eye contact and can barely form the first words of a sentence before shyness silences him. You imagine that Covid lockdowns were a blessed relief.

Out of the blue, Adam is contacted by the father he hasn’t seen since childhood, his answering machine message requesting a meeting coming during a period of intense upheaval. Adam’s mother Donna (Claire Rushbrook) has sold the family house where he still lives, obliging him to find his own accommodation. There is a friendly, supportive new manager at work, and a new colleague Tara (Natalie Gavin) who seems willing to look beyond his awkward, tongue-tied manner and crippling social anxiety.

Adam is someone who never sees dayligh, and cinematographer Nick Cooke creates a strong sense of someone living in the shadows. The all night motorway service station-cum-shopping mall that houses Big Burger Trip shows minimal signs of life. All gloomy corridors and empty escalators, it appears designed to depress. Cooke also creates the impression of Adam as someone who finds the world an alien place. In the dark of night, beams of light that cut through the gloom make his work place look more like a space station than a service station. At other points the deep shadows and pools of artificial light feel as if Edward Hopper had a hand in the cinematography. In Adam’s rare encounters with family and workmates, he seems to find people and their actions as strange as anything Scarlett Johansson encountered in Under The Skin (2013).

Subsequent revelations about his father and CCTV footage capturing his ghost-like wanderings around the service station  leave Adam spellbound. He is persuaded that perhaps his father didn’t originally come from Pakistan as he always believed but may be from somewhere far, far away. Hussain keeps the audience on side as we question whether Adam  is losing his mind or whether he might just be on to something, and Ayub’s convincing portrayal of Adam’s distress and sense of otherness helps to sustain credibility. The friendship with the spiky Tara adds to the film’s emotional pull; their tentative, unsentimental connection starts to feel like a lifeline.

Hussain seasons his melancholy story with moments of dry, deadpan comedy that suggest affinities with the films of Aki Kaurismaki. Beneath the surface gloom lies a quiet, appealing humanity as Adam’s story becomes a journey from the shadows into the promise of daylight.

Production company:  Escape Films 

International sales: Bankside Films

Producer: Michelle Stein

Cinematography: Nick Cooke

Production design: Elena Muntoni

Editing: Nse Asuquo

Music:  Sarah Davachi

Main cast: Faraz Ayub, Natalie Gavin, Claire Rushbrook