From left, Tilda Swinton, Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir.” (A24)

From left, Tilda Swinton, Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir.” (A24)

Small details add up to a compelling story in ‘The Souvenir’

The film, about a young woman dallying with a sketchy older man, is challenging and hard to shake.

If you had a friend like Julie in “The Souvenir,” you’d sit down with her, have a serious talk and advise her as gently as possible to get rid of the slippery character she’d been dating for a while.

She wouldn’t listen to you, obviously, but at least you tried. You might have similar feelings while watching “The Souvenir” — that urge to step in and stop someone from doing something foolish — but the movie is so empathetic to its characters it makes you understand why Julie has to go through this traumatic experience.

I knew nothing about this film going into it, except that I liked English writer-director Joanna Hogg’s small-scaled previous work (including “Exhibition”). It doesn’t take long to sense that “The Souvenir” is a thinly veiled autobiography, and indeed the story is very close to Hogg’s own experience as a film student in the 1980s.

Julie is in a London grad school studying film, planning to create a serious documentary study of the working class — an atonement for her own privileged upbringing. She’s played by the quiet, thoughtful Honor Swinton Byrne, the daughter of Tilda Swinton, in her first major role. (Swinton, in a precise supporting turn, plays Julie’s mother.)

In a series of scenes so casual you almost don’t see a story developing, Julie meets an older man, Anthony (Tom Burke). He’s elegant, intelligent, and has some kind of government job. He also comes across as a pretentious twit, but Julie doesn’t see that side.

Anthony has bad habits that the audience will recognize sooner than Julie does. But the point here is not to guess at what will happen, but to see how beautifully the small details add up to a picture of souls in crisis.

Hogg works in a style that leaves out exposition, so we have to put the pieces together. The film feels like a memory exercise, where forgotten moments are left out, and the things that stick in the mind are left over.

One of the pleasures here is the way the movie evokes a moment — not specifically the 1980s, but the time before cellphones and the internet. David Raedeker’s cinematography is soft and warm, completely different from the razor-sharp harshness of digital photography. It’s a world of the past, yet there’s not a whiff of sentimentality about it.

Be advised: “The Souvenir” is a movie that makes you work to meet it halfway. It takes a while to understand what’s going on, and the characters are not “likable,” as they are required to be in most movies. Tap into its rhythm, however, and you’ll find this film hard to shake.

“The Souvenir” (4 stars)

English director Joanna Hogg’s film is an autobiographical story of a 1980s film student (thoughtful Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda Swinton) who takes up a relationship with a questionable older man (Tom Burke). This challenging film doesn’t invite you to like its conflicted characters, but the small details add up to a very empathic portrait of souls in crisis.

Rating: R, for nudity, language

Opening: Meridian, Seattle 10

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