The love triangle is usually the romantic comedy trope where our likeable, slightly ditzy or at least charmingly scatter-brained heorine must choose between the sweet best friend and the charming rogue, or the sweet best friend and the brooding, exciting outsider. Our girl is typically uncomplicated and her choices often involve a lot of comic misfortunes and shoulders to cry on. Everyone lives happily ever after when the reliable best friend finally gets his righteous due by winning the girl. Or if he doesn’t, it’s because the brooding guy is actually really cool and nice and we as the audience are happy with the outcome.
The Turkish-American co-production, Across the Sea, doesn’t follow this formula. Written and directed by Turkish-American gal pals Nisan Dag and Esra Saydam, their moody feature debut premiered at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival and won Audience Award for Narrative Feature and a Jury Honorable Mention for Narrative Feature.
Protagonist Dalma, played by Turkish-American actress Dalma Sonmez, is distinctly unsympathetic and complex. She’s beautiful of course, but from the outset the viewer is drawn into her hardness and questionable choices. Six months pregnant and prone to sneaking out of her marital bed in the middle of the night for some cigarette-smoking and a little vodka in her orange juice, we as viewers are put in the uncomfortable position of being complicit in her choices at the same time that we are put off by them. We are confronted with our understanding of freedom of choice and can’t help but judge Dalma for hers.
Dalma’s husband, Kevin, is a perfectly nice all-American guy played by Jacob Fishel. Though together for a seemingly sustantial amount of time, Fishel plays Kevin as a man enamored with his wife’s exoticism. He convinces her to return home for one last hurrah before the baby is born.
Once the film moves to the scenic seaside town, Kevin is eager to participate in the local culture, forge bonds with her family, embrace a Turkish name for his son and even buy the family’s house so he, Dalma and the baby can vacation there every year. His attempts at immersion further isolate Dalma from him and from us. It emphasizes her otherness even as she’s surrounded by others more like her than not.
By the time we meet her first “boyfriend, brother, best friend, everything,” Burak we are suspicious of Dalma and her motives. Burak, played brilliantly by Turkish actor Ahmet Rifat Sungar, is all wounded reserve and kind honor. He speaks volumes with his eyes, the tension in his body and he is supremely sympathetic. His scenes with Dalma are among the most beautiful in the film, shot primarily with a handheld camera and framed by the breathtaking beauty of the setting and the chemistry between him and Dalma is palpable and raw even as they try to ignore it. Through Burak, Dalma becomes even more challenging and as we learn about the circumstances of their romance, we are drawn into the pain and ecstasy that first love often entails.
The film explores the themes of isolation, history, the ability to rewrite your narrative as an immigrant while never truly escaping your past and what it means to be female. Women’s ambivalence about pregnancy and motherhood isn’t often presented in films as acutely as it is here and the viewer is forced to confront her own prejudices about choice and individuality. Dalma is complex and broody, and we learn more about her from the men in her life than directly from her, reflecting how women are often defined by the roles they play rather than through the direct expression of their messy motivations and thoughts.
But perhaps the most important theme the film explores is what it means to be human. In a rare light moment, Barak asks Dalma why she chose Kevin. She tells him it’s because he’s kind and a gentleman, having carried her up five flights of stairs to her apartment on their first date because she had broken her ankle. Burak counters that this is not a gentlemanly act, it is simply a human one. We see evidence of this understanding of humanity throughout the film. It’s in resident bon vivant Asli’s platonic and lighthearted friendship with Kevin, in how Burak begrudgingly deposits a drunk Kevin back home simply because it’s the right thing to do, in Asli’s tenderness with a sleeping Dalma though we know she doesn’t really like her, and in the way the children of the resort move in and out of the adults’ world fully integrated and loved.
“It’s different in New York,” Dalma tells Burak, and we see that it is true. In this small community with its shared history, people take care of one another despite their personal feelings because it’s the right thing to do. No one is anonymous and that history is a blessing even as it burdens each of our characters.
The film often veers into melodrama, but the performances are sublime, the effort a solid directorial debut and it effectively captures the decisions we have to make to finally grow up, reconciling the past with the present and accepting the choices we have made and trying to do better. Trying, as Burak says, not to do “things for which you’ll be sorry.”