Tag Archives: Irish movies

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Dating Amber

by Hope Madden

Awkward teens pretend to date each other to sidestep the school bullies, only to find a deep and genuine bond. That sounds pat enough, but writer/director David Freyne (The Cured) and a stunning cast have something far messier and human in mind.

Welcome to County Kildare in the mid Nineties. Divorce is still illegal, homosexuality a curse, the Irish army or the hair salon are the likeliest post-graduation vocations. As Amber (Lola Petticrew) says frequently, “This place will kill you.”

Amber should know. She found her father hanging in the forest near the trailer court where she rents out spots to horny teens, which she does to accrue enough dough to head to London the minute she graduates.

But to survive between now and then, she proposes the “let’s pretend we’re dating” con to Eddie (a remarkable Fionn O’Shea). Because Amber is gay. Gay gay gay. And so is Eddie.

No. No, he definitely is not gay. Not at all. But still…it isn’t a terrible idea.

So begins Freyne’s semi-satirical look at the perils of high school generally and sexual conformity specifically. There are delightful, early, broad-stroke comic moments that simply feel like a cheeky Irish upending of John Hughes tropes.

But that’s not Dating Amber. Not at all. The brightly familiar comedy trappings serve to lull you into a comfortable space so the film can unveil something beautifully untidy and really heartbreaking, something simultaneously devastating and resilient.

Freyne mixes darkness and forgiveness in equal measure. Everyone has their own shit to deal with, and an depressed small town full of frightened people lacking in any real opportunity or choice is bound to take its toll—on the gay kids, on the parents who probably don’t want to be married anymore, on the younger brother who just wants to feel like his family is normal, and on everyone facing graduation and whatever likely dismal future lies ahead.

But mainly, Freyne is interested in how Amber and Eddie contend with things. Luckily, Petticrew and O’Shea share a truly lovely chemistry, creating the kind of bond you long to see for every desperate and lonely teenager.

Their honesty gives every scene an extra punch—of laughter or heartbreak. Coming of age still looks like it seriously sucks, but Dating Amber is a keeper.

St. Pat’s Movie Ideas

Okay, so we can’t go out to get our Irish on this year. Here are some great ideas for celebrating at home!

Song of the Sea (2014)

This Academy Award nominated watercolored dream mixes modern day with Irish folklore to spin the yarn of a wee selkie and the brother who begrudgingly loves her. Magical, sweet, charming and funny, it’s a treat parents will enjoy at least as much as their kids. It should have won the Oscar.

The Secret of the Kells (2009)

Pair it with director Tomm Moore’s first Oscar nominee, the gorgeous Celtic poem The Secret of Kells. Moore’s talent for blending everyday challenges with ancient magic is again at work as we shadow young Brendan through the riotous color and animated details of the enchanted forest outside the medieval abby where he lives. It’s another visually stunning bit of animation that’s as compelling to adults as it is to children.

Knuckle (2011)

James Quinn McDonagh cuts an enigmatic presence through the bloody world of Irish Traveler bare knuckle “fairfights” in Ian Palmer’s documentary Knuckle. The unbeaten pride of the Quinn McDonaghs, James takes on challengers from the feuding Joyce clan. Unfortunately, each win quells the action only briefly, as family members’ chest thumping and boasting reignite the feud, and another challenge is made. Palmer aims to illustrate the culture that fuels rather than overcomes its grudges, due in equal measure to unchecked bravado and finance (wagers bring in fast money for the winning clan). Filming for more than a decade, Palmer uncovers something insightful about the Traveler culture, and perhaps about masculinity or warmongering at its most basic.

The Guard (2011)

Then to a lighthearted look at drugs and crime on the Emerald Isle. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh assembles a dream cast anchored by the ever-reliable Brendan Gleeson to wryly articulate a tale of underestimation and police corruption in this very Irish take on the buddy cop movie. Through Gleeson, McDonagh shares a dark, philosophical yet silly humor, crafts almost slapstick action, and offers a view of hired guns as workaday folk. The Guard is a celebration of tart Irish humor and character; the actual plot merely provides the playground for the fun.

Calvary (2014)

McDonagh and Gleeson return three years later in Calvary. The endlessly wonderful Gleeson plays Fr. Michael, a dry-witted but deeply decent priest who has a week to get his affairs in order while a parishoner plans to kill him. Sumptuously filmed and gorgeously written, boasting as much world-weary humor as genuine insight, it’s an amazing film and a performance that should not be missed.

Once (2006)

You can’t celebrate St. Pat’s without some music. In Once, an Irish street musician fixes vacuums by day and dreams of heading to London in search of a recording contract. His unpredictable relationship with a Czech immigrant becomes the needed catalyst. Writer/director John Carney creates a lovely working man’s Dublin in a film blessed with sparkling performances from heretofore unknown leads Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Their chemistry and their music are the heart of the film. This immensely charming slice of life picture, superbly crafted with tender realism, also boasts an honest, understated screenplay, and undoubtedly the best soundtrack of 2006.


The Commitments (1991)

Jimmy Rabbitte intends to manage the greatest soul band in the world, so he hand crafts The Commitments, a Dublin-based, all white, blue collar soul band the likes of which Ireland has never seen. (The band includes Hansard again, much younger and with a magnificent ‘fro.) Alan Parker’s “behind the music” style tale of the rise and fall of a band is as charming, energetic and great sounding a way to spend St. Patrick’s Day as you will find.

Do Not Open

The Devil’s Doorway

by Hope Madden

So many horror films delve into those murky holy waters of Catholicism. So many horror movies are clearly made by lifelong non-Catholics. If Aislinn Clarke’s The Devil’s Doorway gets extra points, it’s for knowing the religion it is lambasting.

Two priests—one young, one a veteran—head into dangerous spiritual territory in a film that fully understands that you will compare it to The Exorcist. How can you not?

The Devil’s Doorway follows Fr. Thomas Riley (Lalor Roddy) and Fr. John Thornton (Ciaran Flynn) to a Magdalene Laundry, one of Ireland’s infamous workhouses populated by women the country wanted to hide and exploit.

The setting itself is a way of inverting the gravitas of The Exorcist, which saw two priests—one firm in his belief, the other confronting a crisis of faith—come to the aid of an innocent girl facing the corruption of her purity from something demonic.

Here, Fr. Riley, the elder priest, has to face his own crisis of faith. But his belief has been stretched to breaking by the corruption of the church itself, as manifest by this place.

So, they go to investigate a miracle but find something more predictably menacing is afoot.

There is an earnestness in the battle between faith and cynicism in this film. The Exorcist and films like it, those that saw the wayward horror of man as only correctable with help from above, have long given way to something else. A demonic possession now feels like it happens within holy walls because that’s where the devil lives in the first place.

While most films of this ilk simply take potshots, The Devil’s Doorway mourns the corrosion of something worthwhile and holy. Applause for finding an honest statement to make within this over-worked subgenre, although the congratulations belong primarily to Roddy.

The Irish actor finds truth in Fr. Riley—Doubting Thomas’s—struggle. He stands out as the only sane person, the only responsible adult in the house. And though the Mother Superior role is written with evil relish (as per usual), Helena Bereen’s delivery stings in a way that is eerily authentic.

Until it’s not.

We get it. Nuns are creepy. Twelve years of Catholic school clarified that.

The film gets a bit caught in genre trappings, and what starts as an indictment of the church becomes so punchdrunk on jump scares it loses its focus entirely. The found-footage gimmick works well enough for a while, but devolves in the end into something so familiar it’s almost sad.

The Devil’s Doorway started out with promise, but like so many lapsed Catholics, it lost its way.