Damla (Damla Sönmez), the lead character of “Across the Sea,” is difficult to embrace. The film directed by first-time feature directors Nisan Dag and Esra Saydam is considerably less so.
The story of a pregnant Turkish woman living in New York who is called back to her home country as her parents’ house goes up for sale, it basks in the beautiful scenery of a seaside community that brings nothing but pain for Damla. And yet when her husband Kevin gently pleads, “I want to see where you grew up,” it’s not long before she finds herself in a Range Rover in Karaca, as depressed about the visit as she is the impending birth of her first child. While Das and Saydam don’t let us see whether she mounted any kind of protest, it would be understandable if she didn’t, prone to self-destructive behavior such as stealing away for the occasional cigarette or drink in spite of carrying a child.
While such signposts might seem a bit dark as well as obvious on the part of the filmmakers, “Across the Sea” opens up once it relocates to the sun-soaked Turkish coast. Sumptuously shot by John Wakayama Carey, it’s easy to see why Kevin is so taken with his wife’s old stomping grounds, going so far as to consider buying up property there for their family. However, Damla is clearly distracted by a local fisherman Burak (Ahmet Rifat Sungar), with whom it’s hinted she has a history. Over the few days they’re in town, the couple begins to drift apart, Damla swallowed whole by her gregarious family and Kevin gravitating towards Asli (Elif Ürse), a family friend who can fill him in on the past as Burak seems to be ever present just off to the side.
Das and Saddam possess a bravery Damla does not, unconcerned to put a seemingly unsympathetic character at the fore and although a conventional love triangle emerges, the story feels unforced. Decisions Damla made in the past – many of which are wisely concealed by the film to build tension – come back to haunt her and “Across the Sea” feels richer for having a protagonist you only come to understand fully as the film nears its end. Sönmez may seem frustratingly passive in playing her, but she’s perfectly cast as the fragile Damla, her striking green eyes making an immediate impression, throwing off the scent that she’s hiding great pain underneath.
But “Across the Sea” goes down smooth. An extremely accomplished first feature that flows effortlessly between Damla and Kevin’s parallel experiences, the film shows great care on the part of Das and Saydam to give every character their due, not the least of which is the film’s seaside setting of Karaca. In letting the environment seep into the frame, “Across the Sea” can feel like a great odyssey, for those who haven’t been to Turkey. In terms of an emotional experience, Das and Saydam also make it one of the heart.
“Across the Sea” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays once more at Slamdance on January 27th at 6:45 pm at the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City.