In the 2013 dark comedy Everyone’s Going to Die, writer/director collective Jones set out their stall early. Melanie (Nora Tschirner) wakes up dazed and blurry-eyed from a house party, dressed as Charlie Chaplin. In the cold light of day, she tells fellow guest Ali “I’m lost,” and then smokes a cigarette. The scene sets the tone perfectly for the rest of the film and ultimately encapsulates what every ‘seaside weepie’ is about.
Movies set in coastal towns and seaside resorts are nothing new (Brighton Rock and Local Hero are but two popular examples) but this sub-genre of British cinema has only emerged in the last 20 years or so, arguably brought to the attention of larger audiences through Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light. No doubt this curious set of films is influenced by the renewed interest in these seaside locations by DFLs (people who are Down From London) who are, for better or worse, changing the landscapes of coastal towns as we know them. These often low-budget indie flicks tell the stories of shiftless misfits tethered to their pasts, who long to move on but are stuck and left behind.
Later in Everyone’s Going to Die, Melanie – who we learn is a German twentysomething far from home – is in the car of her new acquaintance and fellow lost soul Ray (Rob Knighton) whom she met in a café and is now aimlessly drifting around the fictional seaside town with. From the passenger seat, with the grey sea below, Melanie laments how her life would have been much easier if she had been born into a family of goat herders. Then she could just herd goats all day in the mountains, and not worry about living up to the expectations of her high-achieving family or the societal pressure of “doing something you love”. Her parents see her as incapable of finishing anything, which is why she is now contemplating marriage to the shady and elusive Rich (Brett Goldstein). Their engagement is the reason she’s been living on the south coast.
From the illuminated arcade amusements of Dymchurch to the disused railway tracks near the harbour arm in Folkestone – where most of the film was shot – the beaches, parks, cafes, and palatial hotels of a bygone era perfectly complement the type of sombre self-reflection Melanie and Ray’s existential crises require to play out.
Glimpses from the heyday of the great British seaside resort are everywhere in a weepie. The caravan parks, grand Victorian pleasure piers, promenades, and empty bandstands help sustain the irresistible melancholy mood throughout, creating a bittersweet nostalgia that is comforting to escape to for 90 minutes. Although most people watching a seaside weepie will be familiar with the imagery of British seaside culture, when you are watching one that is set right where you grew up and you know every place that appears on screen, you can’t help but feel more invested in the story. Like when you listen to a particular song and it feels like the singer is talking directly to you. That’s what it felt like for me watching Everyone’s Going to Die for the first time. I’d walked across the same beaches, streets, and terrain, feeling the same emotions and thinking the same thoughts.
Niall MacCormick’s coming-of-age drama Albatross also creates a sense of being trapped with nowhere to run – quite literally in this case, with the story taking place on the rugged coastline of the Isle of Man. When the irreverent and aspiring young writer Emelia (Jessica Brown Findlay) rocks up to The Cliff House Bed and Breakfast, she begins a friendship with wallflower Beth (Felicity Jones). It sets them both off on a path of self-discovery, that sadly – but out of necessity in a seaside weepie – must ultimately see them go their separate ways.
The outrageous Emelia takes Beth under her wing and Beth feeds off the charisma and exuberance of her new best friend. However, Emelia has also caught the attention of Beth’s failing writer father Jonathan, who offers to nurture her literary talents. When Beth learns of the affair between the two, the fallout sets the scene for a cathartic ending that sees the girls pick up the pieces of their lives and leave the island for better times.
Beth leaves to study at Cambridge and Emelia finally finds the courage to write her own story, shedding the false identity that her family gave her. As the credits roll the audience is led to believe that they too could sort out their own lives, if only they were set to an uplifting, rousing song. The hopeful and inspiring feeling you are left with is a big part of the appeal of the seaside weepie.
Like Everyone’s Going to Die, Albatross is a story of people who meet at different crossroads in their lives and who are brought out of their malaise by their newfound friendship and the possibility that perhaps there is a better life out there somewhere. Films like these do a great job of mining the sadness and comedy out of seaside resorts to tell heart-warming stories about the human condition, but some seaside weepies have used the backdrop of our seaside towns to tell stories that are much darker in tone. These show the real struggles and drudgery of daily life many people face, set to the familiar soundtrack of squawking seabirds and family amusements.
One of the most jarring and impactful of these films must be James Garner’s award-winning Jellyfish, set in Margate, which focuses on Sarah, (Liv Hill) who is forced to care for her depressed mum and younger siblings whilst also juggling school. Encouraged by a teacher, she finds a bit of light in her bleak existence when she discovers a talent for stand-up comedy. Jellyfish is less concerned with giving the audience a cosy, nostalgia-bathed story about hopes and dreams, and more interested in giving a social commentary on a broken system, where Sarah is let down by every adult in her life. It gives a real insight into some of the problems many traditional coastal towns have faced for years, showing a side many daytrippers and tourists don’t see or may not be aware of. Poverty, gentrification, tourism, and a flawed care system are all touched upon.
18 years before Jellyfish was made, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Last Resort shows a far more desolate and lost version of Margate, before Dreamland was reimagined and creatives and artists moved in. Like Jellyfish Last Resort is making a statement, this time about the UK’s convoluted and problematic immigration system. The film focuses on the plight of a Russian woman, Tanya (Dina Korzun) who is sent with her son to a detention centre near an abandoned seaside amusement park after claiming political asylum.
Like Melanie, Sarah, and Beth, Tanya is an underdog and dreamer trying to get somewhere. This is another aspect of these films I admire so much – you root for the characters to get to where they need to be. Despite all the odds seemingly being stacked against them, they keep going, and when you come away from the film you hope you can be as courageous when faced with such adversity.
Whenever I find a film that is set in a seaside coastal town or resort I can’t resist. Whether it’s a coming-of-age drama like Albatross or a sombre social commentary like Jellyfish, intentionally or not they all offer me a glimpse back into my childhood. I’m transported back to family holidays in Bognor, and long car trips to Great Yarmouth, just from hearing the cries of seagulls in the opening scenes of Jellyfish, or by watching Ray play the arcades in Dymchurch. These films remind me of a childhood spent in these places I can barely remember that seems more special with every passing year.
Published 31 Jul 2023