Enjoy this novel in a season of beach reads

Amid all the big summer box-office monsters (literally and figuratively), this week marks the local release of one of this year's breakouts from the Sundance Film Festival.

No one will mistake the soft, slow burn of “The Souvenir” as mindless summer fun. It's a novel, not a beach read.

But it's a worthy investment and an emotional wringer. A love story that isn't, really, it's especially worth it for the performance of its lead actress.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a reserved film student who is learning about both her craft and herself. She's shy but smart, and swimming in a sea of mansplaining instructors and cohorts.

As she's balancing her film studies, Julie also begins navigating a turbulent relationship with Anthony (Tom Burke). He's charming and cool, but he's also deeply manipulative and hiding secrets from her.

As the relationship ebbs and flows, Julie's bond with Anthony becomes both deeper and more problematic. As school begins to take a backseat, Julie's mother (Tilda Swinton) becomes concerned.

“The Souvenir” is ostensibly a love story — or rather it's a story that centers on a relationship.

Writer-director Joanna Hogg draws from her own film school experience in creating Julie as a character in search of herself in the midst of people who dismiss her.

And Swinton Byrne gives a magnificent and nuanced performance in her first starring role (playing limited scenes along with her real-life mother, Tilda Swinton).

One thing “The Souvenir” can be commended for is not romanticizing the central relationship. Anthony is occasionally caring, but more often dismissive and manipulative of Julie. And Julie cycles through being gas-lit into blaming herself for his failings.

The toxicity of the romance (sold by a great performance from Burke) is what makes Julie such a real character. She's a young woman finding how to carve out her own autonomy.

The narrative looseness of the intimate scenes doesn't adhere to spikes of drama. Anthony's habitual heroin use adds layers, although his addiction is rarely framed as an excuse for his behavior.

If you're looking for a novel among the beach reads, I recommend “The Souvenir.”