Familial mystery amid a baking hot summer creates an explosive mix in Frances Lea’s debut theatrical release Strawberry Fields, an enigmatic drama about grief and sisterhood (or its lack thereof) that just can’t seem to find its legs.
Shy and retiring Tammy (Anna Madeley) arrives at a Kent strawberry-picking farm looking for work, where she meets local sex-fiend Kev (Emun Elliott), and the two begin spending lots of time together. Her idyllic lifestyle is quickly stopped in its tracks, though, once her sister Emily (Christine Bottomley) arrives and begins wreaking emotional havoc.
Even if we don’t know what’s going on in the early stages of Lea’s film, the likable romantic leads share an easy, relaxed chemistry that is absolutely watchable thanks to Lea’s sensual romantic direction. The strong visuals throughout, in fact, will probably make you pine for our own British summer to finally arrive.
The romance seems to build steadily and naturally, but it is once Emily arrives that the audience’s willing participation is truly tested. Details about their past are incredibly vague, with the sisters referencing a dead mother but refusing to elaborate further. Spare morsels slowly unfurl over the brief 87-minute runtime, while all that is clear is that a war of the siblings is definitely emerging.
The eerie atmosphere, complete with unspoken silences and knowing glances, almost gives the impression that events might slalom into the supernatural realm, but we eventually come to realise that it is simply a tale of two emotionally disturbed souls, weathered by their grief. They have both fled a major crisis back home, while Kev, himself an absentee father, is little better.
As confrontations flare up, and everyone begins to get mad at everyone else, the relationship web feels manic and confusing. A cold air of sexual tension enveloping the picking plant accounts for much of it – that is clear – wherein sex is used as an act of aggression, a weapon even.
However, any predilection towards a warm-blooded engagement with this idea is offset by the overt melodrama on display. A sisterly cat-fight in a hay barn is especially suspect, while the more unsavoury left-turns late in the day, rustling up murder attempts and rape allegations, feel rushed for the sake of constructing a visceral climax. It certainly gets noisier as it heads towards the end, but it’s by way of suffocating histrionics which have not earned their place.
At least Lea manages to exhibit a measure of restraint with her ending, which denies the expected rom-com denouement in favour of something more ambiguous yet hopeful. It is a rare vagary in the film that actually works, as for the most part, the lack of information on hand belies its lack of intrigue.
Strawberry Fields boasts a ripe premise, yet malnourishes it to fatal effect. The unassuming, meandering narrative feeds into its peripheral characters, who are all equally, woefully threadbare, especially a laughably, stereotypically loved-up gormless Italian man who watches over Emily. What begins as a tender romance soon enough devolves into overwrought melodrama.
Strawberry Fields is on limited release from Friday.