The lengths that we reach to find closure are impossible to quantify. As we experience trauma and despair, we struggle to hold ourselves together. When death comes suddenly or in unexplained moments, the search for understanding can consume us. Premiering at the Berlinale, Zeevonk (Sea Sparkle) pushes a girl to search for answers. A portrait of grief and tragedy, director Domien Huyghe infuses a sense of adventure into the conspiracy.
After her father (Valentijn Dhaenens) dies at sea, Lena (Saar Rogiers) searches for answers. A sailor like her dad, Lena does not believe he simply drowned in an accident. At first, she begins seeing shadows in the water, and fantasies of sea monsters begin floating in her mind. Afterward, she finds a giant tooth embedded in a piece of the shipwreck, and she becomes emboldened. As she investigates on her own, she sees the people in her life struggle with the grief of her father’s passing in their own way.
Huyghe frames Zeevonk (Sea Sparkle) with a foot in Lena’s fantastical conspiracy and a foot in the tragedy rocking the family. Viewing the tragedy through Lena’s eyes forces us to embrace her perspective, but it also provides hints to the struggles of those around her. We can at once study the power of sorrow while also allowing us to get lost in her imagination. Huyghe may allow for light moments, but he also harnesses the rage of a teenager to perfection. During tense sequences, we feel her anger and pain course through the screen, drawing empathy and pity all at once.
At one point, Lena attempts to speak with her best friend Kaz (Dunia Elwaleed), who also lost her father in the tragedy. Watching Lena’s obsession with a monster versus Kaz’s struggle to make it through the day creates a powerful visual and emotional dichotomy. Huyghe’s framing during the scene and choice to let a handheld camera observe the discussion allows us a peek into the internal struggles of each character. Cinematographer Anton Mertens captures gorgeous images with the lighting, doing so time and time again throughout Zeevonk (Sea Sparkle).
Huyghe also allows his actresses to make choices. While Rogiers and Elwaleed might be young, they display a naturalism in their performances. The anger and frustration of their loss come from their loss of innocence. As they deal with the fallibility of their parents, they struggle to understand how different people handle grief. They bring out the impulsivity of youth but also show the pain one endures when one loses trust in their support system. The performances from each of the girls, as well as Sverre Rous‘ Vincent, allow us to believe this journey is more than just adults gaslighting the teens.
At the same time, Huyghe allows us to observe the pain manifesting on the adults in the community. While Lena handles the loss of her father as if she were the only one affected, the town remains in shock. Her mother (Hilde De Baerdemaeker) can barely keep her life together, dealing with the loss and financial burden of raising a family. Marre (Zouzou Ben Chikha) might be Lena’s coach, but he also lost one of his best friends. He does not want to downplay Lena’s pain, but he also knows he cannot paint her as crazy. Walking that tightrope takes its own emotional toll. It also reinforces how our connections may change as we live through moments of joy and tragedy.
In its own way, Zeevonk (Sea Sparkle) forces the audience to confront their own feelings about death. The lengths we go to hold onto our connections to those we lose cannot be fully explained until we are in the moment. Yet Huyghe allows us to work through the emotions of these events with a beautiful intimacy. Stories like Zeevonk (Sea Sparkle) rarely receive their due. Yet the coming-of-age tale demands attention for its poignant and moving story.