Experimental Reviews

Off Peak (2020) – 4.5 stars

Director: Jesse Adlam

Running time: 6mins

Every six years or so in English football, that rarest of things happens where a new generation of star announces themselves to the world. Think Michael Owen slaloming through Argentina’s back-four to belt home in 1998; Wayne Rooney fizzing a scorching shot into the top-left of Arsenal’s net; Harry Kane being compared to a force of nature when bagging a match-winning double against the same club years later.

When commentators sing the praises of the young scorers in those moments, it almost seems as though they are enjoying it as much as the players themselves; perhaps because they know as they highlight the name and age of the wunderkind in question, they too have become immortalised, linked intrinsically to the start of something truly special. There isn’t much to link that world with Off Peak – Jesse Adlam’s film about a sleepy seaside town after summer’s end – other than to say I think I feel how those commentators felt now.

When the film drew to a close, and I scrolled to the bottom of Off Peak’s submission form to check out the director’s vital statistics, I frankly had to perform a double-take. “Jesse Adlam: Age 18.” 18! I generally don’t like to flag that sort of thing up – a good film can come from anywhere, and anyone can in theory take up filmmaking at any point in their life and make something of worth – but the idea this came from someone born in 2002 is actually startling.

Off Peak is a mesmerising, patient and peaceful piece of experimental filmmaking, moving with the rhythm of the tide, ebbing and flowing between tranquil and thought-provoking moments. Despite not having been filmed on the latest state-of-the-art equipment, Adlam’s background in photography (he studied it in his last two years at school) shines through, using his knowledge of framing, lighting and composition to capture some restful, rhythmic imagery of the sea, and some eerily quiet ‘moving still-life’ scenes from the town built around that rhythm.

Adlam’s lens often comes to rest upon lone figures trudging across the deserted landscape; a mother hurries her meandering child along the almost apocalyptic beach-front, while empty amusement arcades and takeaways are engulfed in a deathly silence; forlorn gusts of wind and the steady crash of the sea are the only things breaking the all-enveloping hush. In the peak holiday period, these would be bustling hives of activity, upon which the hopes of the towns inhabitants depend for survival. For now, though, the town might as well have been built on the moon.

From these chilling images of seclusion, Adlam also builds a deft layer of light-touch social commentary into his film. Scenic as the town is, the lack of movement allows for the wandering eyes of the audience to pick out signs of neglect; rough edges, jagged corners and darkened alcoves which have been ignored by decision makers for decades.

The residents of the town evidently are just eking out a living thanks to the crowded summers, but the signs warning of boat thieves and the large absence of residents under the age of 60 suggests that life in the off peak period is leaner by the year, while governments and industry have looked the other way, and failed to support communities like this. Having been born in Gorleston, and grown up near Great Yarmouth, it’s a story I’m all too familiar with.

At the same time, though, amid the scent of decay, and signs of managed decline adorning the town in Off Peak, there are also hints of hope – or at least of survival. Tying the imagery and organic sound together, an entrancing piano piece winds seamlessly between the film’s sound, vision and themes (sadly the piece and performer are un-credited – one thing Adlam does need to ensure he amends in future films), declining, but also returning, mirroring the back-and-forth, retreat and advance of the sea itself. That in turn serves to suggest that while the town at the heart of the film is currently experiencing a lull, eventually it will see new movement creep into the picture, new life return to the area – be it another year of temporary boom and bust, or a more sustained era of regeneration. Change will arrive, as sure as the crashing of the waves on a beach.

As part of my post-film research, I saw that this director has just finished school, and will be going to the Northern Film School in Leeds, as of in September. Obviously that is worthy of congratulations; though sometimes I fear film schools verge on enforcing cookie-cutter filmmaking, and if they don’t think something can be easily monetised, they can be slightly punitive of art such as this unique brand of serene film poetry. If that turns out to be the case, I urge this particular student, “Don’t change a damn thing.” I hope that my instinct is wrong about that though, and instead his experiences in education only add new strings to his already well-equipped bow. Either way, this young filmmaker has a bright future ahead of him. Remember the name: Jesse Adlam.

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