While its presentation isn’t unique, Sea Sparkle (Zeevonk) has an emotional core that resonates with all audiences.
While enduring and facing loss comes with incomprehensible emotions that affect everyone differently, loss is one of the essential aspects of life, whether we see it from a young age or later on as we grow up. Movies often talk about the topic, though they don’t always get it right, sometimes using melodramatic approaches to the character’s journeys. Belgian director-screenwriter Domien Huyghe created Sea Sparkle (Zeevonk) as an answer to those movies. This is his attempt to face his anguish: he crafts a picture that uses magical realism and friendship as a means to mend the wounds of heartache caused by the loss of a father, back when he was a teenager.
Sea Sparkle (Zeevonk) centers around a teenage girl named Lena (Saar Rogiers), who has lost her father, Antoine (Valentijn Dhaenens), at sea in a shipwreck. She doesn’t believe it, and her world comes crashing down when the person she loves the most is gone from the face of the Earth. Lena’s heart is broken into a million pieces, to the point where she can’t concentrate on her daily activities and sports. During the funeral, Lena sees something in the sea. A big fish? A sea creature? She doesn’t know what it is, but Lena is certain that whatever she sees roaming in the depths of the sea killed her father and his fishing crew. With the help of Vincent (Sverre Rous), an intern at the local sea creature museum, Lena searches for the beast that killed her father.
For almost the majority of the film, Sea Sparkle (Zeevonk) has the young character of Lena stuck in the first age of grief – denial. This is where the film shows most of its emotions, in the daughter’s rejection of the fact that her father has passed. Lena continues to search for an answer to his disappearance. But, when she realizes that there isn’t one, Lena again dwells in denial and seeks mystical responses to his loss. The ending is what you would expect from a film that blends magical realism and humanity in a tale of tragedy for a younger audience. There’s a realization about the circle of life and learning how to deal with those punches that life throws you.
This part of the story, where Huyghe dwells in magical realism, reminded me a bit of Bridge to Terabithia, which also dealt with similar topics – loneliness, grief, and friendship. While Gábor Csupó’s 2007 picture shined a light on the fantasy elements, Sea Sparkle leans more toward the naturalistic aspects. Huyghe has the magic of the seas in the backdrop, as a reminder of the vast aching and loneliness we feel when facing death. While there are occasions when this intertwining between the two realms takes you out of the experience, for the most part, the film manages to stay on its feet due to the performances by the young actors, particularly the lead, Saar Rogiers.
The depths of the sea come across as a place to drown our sorrows, filled with the neglect of accepting the loss of another, but for Lena, it was once a place that brought her bliss and joy, just like the dreamscape treehouse in Bridge to Terabithia. One day, Lena will come to terms with her father’s loss and embrace the seas like she used to. But that’s another story that Huyghe is not interested in telling. I particularly like Sea Sparkle (Zeevonk) and Bridge to Terabithia because they deal with complex subject matters so that a younger audience can understand and learn about them.
For me, the best form of children’s entertainment deals with such topics because it prepares them for the future. Of course, Huyghe doesn’t immerse this film into a fantasy world and remains grounded in our present reality, but its playfulness with magical realism gives it an empathetic and emotional touch. Sea Sparkle (Zeevonk) might not be particularly aimed at younger audiences, but I think that they could be emotionally involved with the narrative. Sea Sparkle’s story is relatable, and you relate to Saar Rogier’s Lena. Because of that, they might go back to these types of films to help them face death and go onto the other stages of grief, passing denial with more ease, which is one of the hardest ones to embrace.
Another aspect I enjoyed in Sea Sparkle (Zeevonk) is how Huyghe showcases the existential angst a young person might have when losing one of their parents or facing sheer loneliness amidst a key event. In a way, this reminded me of another film, Jonah Hill’s Mid90s. Both Sea Sparkle and Mid90s have their characters using skateboarding and other electrifying sport to escape their daily mundane lives driven by loss or rejection. In both films, the skatepark setting is used as a place to escape the dread simmering in their respective homes.
Unfortunately, these two films have one same fault that hurts them from being all-enticing pictures. The screenplay sometimes indulges in the same melodramatic or clichéd antics that Huyghe wanted to avoid in the first place because of this angst.
Yet, in the most important moments in the film, it holds back on that angst to leave room and time for the characters to contemplate their respective lives and futures. This is the reason why it ends up working in the first place, above the rest of the positive aspects I mentioned. During those moments of silence and contemplation, the viewer gets into the headspace of the characters, welcoming their heartache and thinking about how we handled those situations at that age.
The trajectory in which Sea Sparkle goes isn’t original per se, as there are plenty of films that explore denial amidst grief better. However, in both its moments of effervescent bliss and uncontrollable sadness, Huyghe’s latest makes an impact on the viewer thanks to its beating heart and humanistic tendencies.
Sea Sparkle (Zeevonk) premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on February 17-23, 2023. Read our Berlin Film Festival reviews!