Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Happy (Belated) St. Patrick's Day: The Quiet Girl and Unwelcome

I've mentioned that there isn't an Irish Film Festival around Saint Patrick's Day this year, although the group isn't defunct - they recently refreshed their website a bit and hosted the director of The Quiet Girl for a preview show at the Coolidge a few days before it opened officially. They only had a mini-festival in 2019, then when the pandemic hit, there was a pop-up drive-in November 2020, a virtual thing in 2021, and nothing in 2022. I hope they weren't just completely flattened by the pandemic and are able to regroup for something later this year or next.

At any rate, I'm going to guess that both The Quiet Girl and Unwelcome both got a mid-March release so that they'd be around if you felt like doing something Irish on Saint Patrick's Day, although the latter had its run end the night before. IFC has kind of Vasily been getting things into theaters for a week with late shows just before hitting VOD. I'm amused that AMC will open one of those four days before it is available to stream but won't play anything by Netflix (aside from the Glass Onion truce). There must be some awfully bad blood there.

Anyway, this is certainly more my speed than getting drunk or watching a parade when it's barely above freezing!

An Cailín Ciúine (The Quiet Girl)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 Match 2023 in Somerville Theatre #1 (first-run; laser DCP)

Catherine Clinch is a heck of a young actress to find when you're casting a movie named "The Quiet Girl"; she's got a terrifically expressive face and certainly seems to know how to hold herself to add the right feeling to a scene. Get the wrong little girl and the movie is forgotten, but with the right one it is sublime.

Clinch plays Cáit, the fourth of five daughters with another baby on the way, straining an already-poor family with a father (Michael Patric) that's something of a no-account. At eight or nine, she's still wetting the bed and behind other girls her age in school, which leads her to being shy and ostracized. It feels like she's being exiled when she's sent to stay with her mother's cousin Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) and her husband Seán (Andrew Benett) for the summer, but perhaps she'll start to blossom with a bit more individual attention. Still, while Eibhlin says there are no secrets in their house, that doesn't mean she's volunteering everything.

Writer/director Colm Bairéad (adapting a story by Claire Keegan) doesn't give any particular reason why Cáit seems to find some things harder than her sisters and classmates or otherwise make her a puzzle to be solved. Some kids (and people of all ages, really) just don't have things come as easily, and there's not a lot of room in the world to give them the extra help they need. This must often baffle parents of large families, but Bairéad doesn't dwell on it, quietly letting Cáit blossom into a likably ordinary girl, capturing how this can be a victory without making Cáit look like a hidden prodigy or handicapped. It's a tricky balance.

A big part of that is the chemistry between the central trio. Carrie Crowley's Eibhlin is patient without being indulgent, not quite hiding how much she wants this, at one point collapsing as quietly as she possibly can to try and prevent Cáit from seeing her; Andrew Bennet has Seán soften quickly. They've got an easy familiarity that speaks to a long marriage, and the dynamic where she's more obviously warm but he's probably the bigger softie rings true. Clinch is quiet, as the title says, but Bairéad doesn't have her overdo that, trusting her to be nervous or deep in thought, and she's able to get words out with the sort of nervous uncertainty that feels true to life. Other family members and neighbors are scattered around them, with Michael Patric especially noteworthy as Cáit's da, walking the line between how the audience sees him as a reprobate but just warm enough to see how Cáit would want his attention.

It all takes place sometime in the second half of the Twentieth Century, with Bairéad being general with period but quite keen at how he represents class: Cáit is initially seen in an open field and a school where the uniforms flatten who has money and who doesn't, and her home is initially seen as maybe uncomfortably cozy, at least until she gets to the Cinnsealachs', where the big, clean house is almost overwhelming. He hides just how beat up the family car is. The film does a good job of keeping things low-key despite being in plain sight until it needs to be important.

Like its title character, The Quiet Girl is quiet and fragile-seeming as a film but surprisingly solid when you give it a chance. It's exactly what it aims to be.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 10 Match 2023 in AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run; DCP)

I expected a bit more from Unwelcome; director and co-writer Jon Wright made a genuinely terrific Irish monster movie in Grabbers, and this seemed like it should be in roughly the same wheelhouse. Instead, it makes me wonder if he's better off as a director-for-hire - previous Robot Overlords also had trouble tapping into the vein that would make its high concept work.

This one introduces the audience to couple Maya (Hannah John-Kamen) and Jamie (Douglas Booth) in a rough London neighborhood, where they suffer a home invasion on the night they find out Maya is pregnant with their first child. When she's nearly to term, Jamie's grandmother passes, leaving him a house in a small Irish town. There are, of course, downsides: For one, a giant hole in the roof in the master bedroom, with sketchy "Daddy" Whelan (Colm Meaney) and his clan the only contractors available on short notice; for another, family friend Maeve (Niamh Cusack) says that Gramma has been leaving food for the fair folk for decades. She offers to take on that job, but Maya and Jamie are obviously wary of someone having access to their property. But be warned - the "redcaps" are not the Disneyfied pixies of Darby O'Gill and the Little People, but something far more sinister.

Give the filmmakers this - when your movie needs a dirtbag who can't believe he's being attacked by fookin' leprechauns, you really can't do better than Colm Meaney, a beloved character actor who hits just the exact level of how much the working-class Daddy should be weird or a jackass or cruel in a given scene. Hannah John-Kamen brings action chops while still playing nervous, and she has the right sort of chemistry with Douglas Booth, feeling like they've built a good relationship but are nevertheless wobbly due to events.

The filmmakers could do a whole lot better in other areas, though. The movie leans as hard into "this horror movie is really about trauma" as possible without detouring into A24-ville, but really doesn't give the characters a chance to do anything with it, or with how Maya & Jamie get targeted as outsiders in both urban London and rural Ireland. It feels like there are four or five things the filmmakers wanted to do and none really settled into the bones of the movie, leading to a finale that is a mess of different tones capped off by pure 'where did that come from?" The nastiness builds up but the whole thing gets unbalanced, with Maya and Jaime often separated and getting little chance to take control of the movie as the redcaps and Whelan clan form the other sides of a violent triangle.

On the other hand, when it gets into goofy 1980s territory - which happens the second a "redcap" just wanders into the house with a shopping bag and the filmmakers seemingly want you to believe that it's a short guy in a rubber mask as much as a goblin - it's gloriously and violently loopy in ways that a more reasonable horror movie just can't manage. It seems like the weirdest combination of leprechaun-sized people in latex, stunt performers composited in at half height, and CGI enhancement, and I honestly don't think I'd have enjoyed a movie that made it look more real at all.

It doesn't really work, but at its best it doesn't really work in the way that a certain pedigree of B movies seemingly don't work.

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