Eddie Cotter (Fionn O’Shea) is a small-town teenage boy in mid-nineties County Kildare, Ireland. Like a lot of teenage boys, sex is a bit of a mystery to him and the tougher kids who claim firsthand knowledge always like to pick on kids like Eddie. But Eddie’s wrestling with more than just his sexual innocence. He desperately wants the approval of his father, Ian (Barry Ward) but that means following in his footsteps and enlisting in the army. He's giving Cadets his best shot but seems to achieve little more than embarrassment for his dad and this doesn’t help the tensions between Ian and Eddie’s mother Hannah (Sharon Horgan). He’s also desperately trying to hide the fact that he’s gay from his family, his schoolmates and, probably, even himself. To deflect the taunts from other boys, he makes an awkward and not very successful attempt to ‘go with’ the girl he’s meant to have a crush on; Tracey Brennan (Emma Willis) but, if anything, that only makes matters worse.
Meanwhile, Amber Keenan (Lola Petticrew), a brash, self-assured, in-your-face kind of girl from Eddie’s class whose extra-curricular activities include renting out the empty caravans at her mother’s caravan park to those kids at school who are, in fact, having sex, and pocketing the money towards her eventual escape to London. Like Eddie, she’s picked on at school. The kids call her ‘lezzer’ as an insult but, unlike Eddie, she’s not in any doubt about her sexuality. She knows she’s gay. What’s more, she knows Eddie’s gay. So, she comes up with a simple plan – they can avoid all the taunts and teasing by convincing the bullies that they’re both straight; by pretending to be girlfriend and boyfriend.
This idea could have gone wrong, but in the hands of second-time writer/director David Freyne (his first outing was 2017’s zombie flick, The Cured), this story navigates a steady and endearing course. It’s a sweet film that keeps its hard edges at a distance and somewhat in the shadows but still manages to ensure that you know they’re there. In a sequence that sees Eddie and Amber sneak away to Dublin where they can encounter a genuine gay scene, Amber meets Sarah (Lauryn Canny) and embraces the opportunity to be her true self and to even contemplate having a relationship. For Eddie, this hiatus from the closeted oppression of home opens his eyes to the world and the life he could have if he could get out from under the macho expectations of his dad. But it’s also confusing to him and when he’s spotted by a fellow student who comes into the same gay club it sparks shame and fear and a violent outburst.
Both O’Shea and Petticrew are well cast and deliver strong and empathetic performances as do the rest of the cast, most notably Simone Kirby as Amber’s struggling single mum and Evan O’Connor as Eddie’s quirky brother Jack. The story is populated by engaging characters and is nicely shot by Ruairi O’Brien and Emma Lowney’s Production Design along with Joan O’Clery’s costumes remind us that although 1995 might not seem that long ago, it still allows a film like this to qualify as a period piece.
It’s been a bit of a purple patch for Ireland and portrayals of teenage life, at least on streaming platforms, with two seasons of Lisa McGee’s excellent and hilarious Derry Girls and, to a lesser extent, the first half of the highly popular but flawed Normal People. Dating Amber may not be as confronting, dark or edgy as something like Jonathan Entwhistle’s The End of the Fucking World, but it shares some of that series’ insights into the sometimes troubling interior worlds of young people and the fact that it’s set twenty-five years ago does not make it any less relevant to a 21st-century audience.
In some ways, Dating Amber put me in mind of two favourite teenage coming-of-age films from the 80’s – Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Michael Apted’s P’tang Yang Kipperbang (1982). Whilst both those films were very ‘white bread’ and heterosexual ‘teenage-boy-lusts-after-teenage-girl’ stories, they both found a sweetness and an offbeat humour in the pain of their situations that is echoed in Dating Amber and, whilst the issues at heart are very different, took us inside the teenage mind in ways that were as revealing to audiences then, as Dating Amber is to audiences now. This is not a film that will shock, provoke controversy, or even change the world. But it will make you laugh (at least it made me laugh) and it will make you think (ditto on that for me too).
Children who possess supernatural powers are not new to the horror genre - just ask Stephen King. Whether it’s possession, telekinetic abilities or communication with the dead, there’s always something unsettling about seeing a child detach from their innocence and embrace their unnatural darker side. THE INNOCENTS - the new film from Academy Award winning Norwegian writer-director Eskil Vogt - does this in a way we haven’t quite seen before. It’s subtle and thoughtful, yet equally disturbing.
Set during a bright Nordic summer, the film follows young Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), who moves into an apartment complex with her parents and mute autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). Ida seems resentful of Anna, and can’t really play with her because of her condition. While exploring their new neighborhood, she meets Ben (Sam Ashraf), a bullied boy who can move objects with his mind, and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), a sweet girl who can hear other people’s thoughts. While their parents aren’t watching, the children play and experiment with their new powers. There are some fun and even miraculous results - Aisha seems to have a physical connection with Anna, and even helps her find her voice again. Things soon take a dark turn as Ben, who is neglected by his mother and has a taste for cruelty, develops his powers further and becomes violent.
Vogt has crafted an understated yet relentlessly haunting film. There are no high-tech visual effects or any extravagances of the sort, but every frame is rich with feeling and atmosphere. All the child actors are first time performers, which is simply unbelievable as they carry the film with such confidence, charm and grit. Fløttum is particularly compelling with her wise yet curious eyes. The cinematography is both stunning and purposeful, wrapping its audience up in its wonderful and sinister world, and the gripping score, coming and going amongst the eerie silence, adds to this sentiment.
The film is more nuanced compared to others of its genre, but is by no means short on dread and shock. The twisted acts the children commit are already frightening, but even more so by the fact they’re being committed by children. Unlike other films of the sort, THE INNOCENTS also poses a complex question through its horror - are children innocent because they are children, and where do we draw the line? Growing up is all about making mistakes and feeding curiosity. If these children cause damage with their powers, which they are still learning to use and control, is it their fault? Or should children clearly know the difference between right and wrong? It’s a thought-provoking discourse that perfectly fits the extreme, far-fetched circumstances these young characters find themselves.
However, Vogt seems to slightly push the limit on how far the audience will go to defend these children. The overt violence committed is obviously condemned by the characters and narrative, but it’s Ida’s initial actions towards Anna that are troubling. While Anna is oblivious to pain and Ida is frustrated with the attention she gets, pinching your sister is one thing. Putting broken glass into her shoes is another, and curiosity just might not be enough to defend that one.
The first half of THE INNOCENTS is arguably stronger than the second half, with an intriguing and creepy set-up that evolves into a slightly repetitive and drawn-out finale. For the majority of its runtime however, this dark fairytale will leave viewers transfixed. Its subversion of genre conventions and courage to question the audience and make them uncomfortable is highly impressive.
The Innocents is in selected cinemas from May 19.
There’s such a strong sense of the natural world in Aaron Wilson’s filmmaking, both the Australian bush around the Murray River near Tocumwal in his latest film, Little Tornadoes, and the dense, lush green jungle of Singapore in his previous first feature, Canopy (2014). It provides a sobering backdrop against which the human stories play out; whether it’s surviving the deadly pursuit by an enemy in World War II (Canopy), or surviving the loss, heartbreak and abandonment of being left by your wife and finding yourself sole parent to two small children (Little Tornadoes) – in both cases, the urgency and impact of the human stories are given scale by Stefan Duscio’s beautiful, evocative cinematography – as important as these events seem (and are) to the characters in the stories, the natural world is more or less oblivious to trials and tribulations of we humans scrabbling around on the planet’s surface. It’s an interesting context in which to explore these stories of men dealing with the after-effects of trauma and the crippling effects of the male’s all too common inability to talk about painful, personal and emotionally debilitating issues.
It's hard to talk about Little Tornadoes without talking about Canopy. Wilson has said that these two very personal films form two parts of a trilogy exploring the impacts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and, interestingly they were both shot back to back in 2013 but the post production on Little Tornadoes has taken almost ten years. The two films are inextricably linked. Canopy ends with the downed fighter pilot, Jim (Khan Chittenden) being thrown into a truck by his captors and driven down a Singapore road which match-cuts to a shot of a different truck driving down a dusty Australian road and a view of an older man, presumably an older Jim (Robert Menzies) standing in a wheat field. Little Tornadoes begins with a similar shot of a car driving down the same dusty Australian road. This time, though, it’s Leo (Mark Leonard Winter) who we will soon discover is Jim’s son. 1942 has become 1971 and both father and son are struggling to come to terms with the emotional impacts on their lives – for Jim it’s the embedded trauma of the war he’s grappled with for thirty years; for Leo the trauma is fresh, sparked by a wife who, unable to bear her life in a small country town with her taciturn husband, has hopped a train to Melbourne.
For much of the first part of the film, it’s Leo’s story we’re focused on – how he deals with suddenly becoming a sole parent to Maudey (Minnie Liszukiewicz) and her younger brother (both on and off screen) Jack (Freddy Liszukiewicz); how he deals with a seemingly total lack of domestic skills, how he deals with the fact that his departed wife won’t even speak to him or her children on the phone, and how he deals with the entrenched racism in his workplace, aimed at Tony (Fabio Motta) who, it seems, is his only friend and support. It’s Tony who puts Leo onto his sister, Maria (Silvia Colloca) with the recommendation that she cooks really well. And she does! Bringing Maria into the house to help with meals and the children is the first step towards Leo accepting the change that has taken place in his life, and to opening up his family to new possibilities. Around this time, though, Jim’s story insinuates itself into the narrative and we see more clearly the generational inability and paralysis of these two stoic, isolated, uncommunicative men who gird themselves against dealing with the changes that have come into their respective lives.
It's in Jim’s story that the connections back to Canopy resonate so strongly. His home is the home we caught in glimpses during that first film and memories of his traumatic flight through the jungle are imposed into present day (70’s) scenes either through a literal flashback to a scene from that film or, much more effectively, through echoed images from the one that bleed themselves like ghosts into the other.
There’s an element of flashback in the Leo story as well, though this comes in the form of poetic voice over narration spoken by Maria and looking back on the tale that’s unfolding. In Canopy, Wilson took sole writing credit but here he shares that with novelist Christos Tsiolkas and, whilst the words are often beautiful, there are timeswhen the disembodied voice overstays its welcome.
Little Tornadoes is not an easy film. It’s slow pace and repetitive storytelling challenges you to enter this world on its own terms, and allow yourself to become immersed in the silences, the stillness, the repetition and the internalisation that characterises both Leo’s and Jim’s stories. For those that embrace these demands, the rewards are rich. For the less willing, I can imagine that the film will often frustrate. In either case, though, the sharply drawn and deeply authentic performances shine through as does Tim Burgin’s beautifully rendered and evocative 70’s period production design, Robert Mackenzie’s score and, as already mentioned, Stefan Duscio’s photography. I’d also highly recommend sticking around through the credits to hear Sal Kimber and Simon Lewis’ haunting title song.
For the most part, Little Tornadoes is a compelling and skilfully made film that sometimes over-eggs its pudding in the telling of its tale. In some cases (most notably the rapid wrap up of the narrative at the end) it relies too heavily on the narration but when it doesn’t, Wilson’s craft as a filmmaker becomes clear and the visual power of the film speaks louder than any words. As a second part of a trilogy, I must say I was glad that I had rewatched Canopy before seeing Little Tornadoes; the resonances between the two films were so much more powerful, I suspect, then if I’d relied on my memory from nearly a decade ago. In fact, I couldn’t help thinking that rather than the second in a trilogy, this film is more like the second half of the Canopy story. Wilson’s desire to explore the impacts of PTSD through these stories seems less apparent in Canopy than it does in Little Tornadoes, but the latter needs the former in order to make sense. Given the relatively short running times of both these films, I found myself wondering whether these two pretty good films might one day merge into an even more powerful and truly great film.
Little Tornadoes is in select cinemas from May 12, 2022.
When handled well, bridging the generations by paring an older actor with a younger actor can sometimes create a cinematic chemical reaction where the result is greater than the sum of its parts. I don’t mean creepy male- fantasy-Woody-Allan kinds of films – I mean films like Harold and Maude (young Bud Cort and old Ruth Gordon - Hal Ashby, 1971) or As Good As it Gets (old Jack Nicholson and young Helen Hunt – James L Brooks, 1998) or Lost in Translation (old Bill Murray and young Scarlett Johansen – Sophia Coppola, 2003); films where it’s not about sex, per se, but about differing perspectives on life and death and genuine ageless human connection.
So, casting two great actors; young Aubrey Plaza (so great on TV’s in Parks and Recreation and on the big screen in 2017’s Ingrid Goes West) up against old Michael Caine (so great in almost everything except 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge) has precedent that should give one cause for excited anticipation. Unfortunately, there are no sparks between the two, so the excitement never really gets ignited. This isn’t really the fault of the actors/ They both turn in quite watchable and engaging performances, it’s just that they seem to be in different movies. Partly this is a problem with a derivative and predictable screenplay from first time screenwriter Anthony Grieco and partly it’s down to Lina Roessler’s direction which allows the two actors to perform their characters in quite different, mismatched rhythms and tones.
The story, itself, certainly has promise. Lucy Stanbridge (Plaza) is the daughter of well-respected publisher Joseph Stanbridge (Luc Morissette) who has left her the firm which, it seems, she’s run into near bankruptcy by putting all their eggs into a young adult fantasy novel that’s tanked. Sensing her desperation, slimy competitor (and Lucy’s ex) Jack Sinclair (Scott Speedman) is about to close the deal on buying the ailing business when Lucy stumbles across an old contract her father made with bestselling author Harris Shaw (Caine). Shaw hasn’t published in fifty years and his contract stipulates that he owes them a book which, of course, has just finished writing. It also stipulates that his work is not to be edited at all on the proviso that he participates in whatever publicity the publishing house has in mind. Shaw, of course, is a curmudgeonly self-centred, whisky-soaked misanthrope and the last person you’d want to be accompanying on a book tour, but Lucy holds him to the contract’s terms and Shaw needs the money so, off they go.
No doubt you can already see where this story is heading (and that’s exactly where it goes) and that would be fine if there was enough frisson between the two to distract us from the familiarity of the path we’re on. But there’s not. It’s like Lucy, Jack and Lucy’s kooky PA, Rachel (Ellen Wong) are all in a remake of You’ve Got Mail (Nora Ephron, 1998) or its superior predecessor The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940) but then, where does Harris Shaw fit? He doesn’t. He’s in some other movie that, frankly, I’d prefer to see. Caine’s cantankerous take on Shaw is enjoyable enough but it’s chalk to the cheese of Plaza’s daffy, desperate Lucy.
There is some interesting social commentary sitting in the background here as Shaw’s indifference to his audience and general profanity is adopted as some kind of hipster chic on social media (after he brands everything as ‘bullshite’ the word becomes a trending hashtag and even appears on billboards) but any examination of the generational shift between his last novel being lauded for its content and his new novel being the catalyst for more ironic fandom from audiences that respond to the grumpy personality but are neither buying nor reading the book, is superficial at best.
The film gets quite bogged down in the middle and there are some implausibilities such as Shaw’s quite positive reaction to Lucy having gone ahead and edited Shaw’s novel without his knowledge – which seems pointless anyway, given they’re on a book tour with the published book. There are also some twists towards the end which are not all that twisty, and a final coda that really stretches the friendship.
Recently, Michael Caine made some statements which suggested that after Best Sellers he is ‘done with movies’. He followed that up quite quickly with a correction via twitter, saying ‘I haven’t retired’. When great actors reach a certain age (Caine’s 88) you can’t help but hope for one more great performance. For Michael Caine, Best Sellers isn’t it. Fingers crossed he has another crack before, as he says, he’s ‘done with movies’ for good.