When We Were Strangers is a short romantic drama, written and directed by Ayla Spaans. It is told entirely in voice-over from the unnamed protagonist played by Madelief Veldhuisen. The only other character, also nameless and entirely mute, is played by Yassine El Ouardi. Spaans packs more emotional truth into 8-minutes, complete with a total character arc than some films do in 100. What exactly makes the short film so engrossing? Let’s start with what it is about and break it down from there.
Veldhuisen’s character is walking toward a lavish house where a party is being thrown. She talks about how she tried on several outfits before choosing this particular dress. Once in, she immediately notices the goofy, carefree nature of El Ouardi’s character, and they share instant chemistry. To really learn about each other, they sneak off into an empty room, where she believes everything is going smoothly. However, as they seem to be getting closer, he is actually becoming more and more distant.
That synopsis is everything except the last minute, maybe a minute and a half of When We Were Strangers. Now, to fully understand what Spaans is saying and why it is so impactful, those last few moments are necessary, but it is not my place to spoil the movie or the resonance it will carry with all who watch it. As such, a few things I say might not make total sense until you watch the film.
“…she immediately notices the goofy, carefree nature of El Ouardi’s character, and they share instant chemistry.”
With the party at the mansion, Spaans creates an atmospheric and lively world, where the prospect of losing oneself or finding yourself, is all on equal footing. That fun uncertainty lies at the heart of When We Were Strangers. Is it El Ouardi who is being distant, or is Veldhuisen coming on too clingy, too fast? Is it a bit of both? Like in real life hook-ups, nothing is all that simple, and Spaans gleefully plays in those grey areas to speak truth to the hard path of love and self-actualization. Again, how these themes and ideas are paid off would be a spoiler, but she sticks the landing in a profound manner.
The two leads are also quite good. Madelief Veldhuisen’s aching voice-over instantly lets audience members know where she’s at mentally and emotionally. Her chemistry with co-star Yassine El Ouardi is quite good, as their body language and longing gazes speak more than words ever could. El Ouardi’s rethinking on this relationship, and his potential impulsivity, feels authentic, and his facial expressions ably sell his thoughts.
When We Were Strangers is an 8-minute excursion into the highs and lows of romance, and it works perfectly. The two actors shine throughout, and writer-director Ayla Spaans infuses her screenplay with heart and authenticity. Combine all that with the impressive cinematography and stylistic directing, and you are left with no reason not to have your heartbroken by the movie.
"…packs more emotional truth into 8-minutes, complete with a total character arc than some films do in 100."