VIFF Film Review - The Old Oak (2023)
"The Old Oak" is a story set in 2016, in a small town in North East England. Since the local mines have closed property values have dropped and the town’s people are struggling to get by. TJ Ballantyne manages his family pub, The Old Oak, which is run down and serves as one of the only remaining places for the villagers to gather for a pint. TJ also works with his friend Laura in helping several Syrian refugee families relocating to their town. When the families arrive they’re immediately met with hostility and abuse by the towns’ people. Their reactions to the new comers are fuelled by racism and bigotry. Several young men target Yara, who is taking pictures as she gets off the bus. Their bullying and taunting of her leads to her camera being broken.
Foreign investors are buying up homes in the town for a fraction of what the existing neighbours paid, making it difficult for them to sell their homes without a significant loss in equity. These newly purchased homes are where the refugee families are moving in to and this adds to the tension already felt about the refugees settling in this town. There’s definitely a feeling from some of the locals that they are losing their home and community to “foreigners”.
Even though Yara keeps encountering hostility from the locals she doesn’t let it bring her down. She meets their hostility with kindness. TJ is the perfect example of someone who wants to do good for others but is unable to see his own flaws. He sympathizes with the local kids who see the refugee families getting new things “for free” and they want those freebies too. He tries to explain to the kids that these families have lost everything, but the kids are only concerned with their own selfish wants. He also remains silent when his pub patrons make racist comments about the refugee families.
Yara desperately wants to find the man responsible for breaking her camera. It holds a special meaning for her that’s revealed later in the film. TJ tells her she won’t get any money out of the man responsible but offers to trade in some cameras that belonged to his uncle for credit to help fix her camera. He’s kept his uncle’s things in the back room of the Old Oak. The room was formerly a gathering place where the community came together during tough times. A placard under one of the photos on the wall reads “When you eat together, you stay together”. With much nudging from his friends, Laura and Yara, and the great reminder of this slogan, TJ and the bunch come up with an idea to bring the locals and newcomers together but it won’t be an easy feat as they come up against many challenges and objections along the way.
This story definitely has its ups and downs with moments of hope and deep disappointment. It does drive home the importance of community and coming together during difficult times. The reveal of TJ’s backstory really helps the audience to see what shaped him as a man and his character does have some beautiful growth through the film. While there are many parts of the story that are left unresolved, in the end it does leave the audience with a feeling of optimism. I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling the end but you do walk away feeling the town has been changed for the good.
The Old Oak is screening at the 42nd Vancouver International Film Festival which runs September 28 – October 8.
Tickets and info at viff.org