Black Irish at the Hamptons International Film Festival. Initially, the blurb in the program guide suggested a fairly formulaic coming-of-age drama. But looks can be deceiving, and the synopsis just barely scratches the surface of what is, in reality, one of the most complex, rich, and heartwarming stories I've seen in quite some time.
Remember those drawings in art class? The ones where the page is covered with black crayon and as you scrape off the outer layer you find multicolored wonders underneath? That's the most apt description that can be applied to Black Irish. Because, as you'll discover, nothing is at it seems. And that is the singular achievement of Brad Gann, directing from his own script, with an ensemble cast that lends such passion to the material that I left the theater shaking my head in awe.
Webster's defines "hero" as, "one that shows great courage, an object of extreme admiration and devotion." It's hard to grow up without one, especially as a teenager in hardscrabble South Boston. Often the father possesses the traits a boy needs to survive those difficult years and prepare for the world he's about to enter. An older brother will usually suffice in cases where Dad is absent or unable or unwilling to fit the bill. Many coming-of-age stories place a teacher or clergyman in this position. But someone always appears, the boy grows up, he moves on, and they all live happily ever after. But what if all fail or don't show up to the table? Black Irish poses that question, and more. So much more.
Meet the McKays. Brendan Gleeson is Desmond, the father who doesn't quite qualify as hero due to years of heavy drinking and wallowing in self-pity, a legend in his own mind but not to his family. Tom Guiry is Terry, the older brother who's headed down a path of violence and self-destruction not unlike his father, giving up the hero role in the process. Sister Kathleen (Emily Van Camp), pregnant, wants little to do with the chaos around her. Amidst all this, Melissa Leo is Margaret, the mother who tries to hold it all together at the risk of losing her own somewhat sane self along the way. And our protagonist, 16 year-old Cole, is stunningly portrayed by Michael Angarano, as the boy who yearns for that moral compass that he needs to help guide the way into adulthood.
Black Irish takes us along on young Cole's search, and as we emotionally invest ourselves in his quest, we are at turns confused and occasionally amused, as is he, but mostly we hurt. To say that we feel his pain does not do justice to a story that is, as its heart, real life. And this is the true surprise of this film. These characters are far from one dimensional, the reality far from the cliched impression even the paragraph above might suggest. There were audible gasps at the numerous twists and turns that Gann has infused into this shockingly brilliant script, no less than 12 years in the making and 30 rewrites along the way, as he indicated in the Q&A following the screening. And just when you think you know these people, just as you relax when the film seems to enter territory in which we feel comfortable, something happens. We discover that those we thought were cold and distant have a heart, a vulnerability and tenderness conveyed by Gleeson and Guiry that left me dumbfounded. Those we thought were soft and sweet, innocent and vulnerable, have a soft, fuzzy animal inside ready to turn vicious when backed into a corner, as Leo, VanCamp, and Angarano all exhibit along the way.
In the Q&A, Gann mentioned VanCamp's long-running portrayal of Amy on TV's "Everwood" as the inspiration for her being cast in this role. Fans will not be disappointed, and those unfamiliar with this actor's ability to bring nuance to what could otherwise be a stock performance will be wowed. Guiry lends the film some of the most heart wrenching surprises, as his ability to turn moods on a dime is unparalleled. Leo carves out new territory, again, in a role that could have been tired and worn in the hands of a lesser actor. She truly shines. And Gleeson does a star turn in a magnificent performance that, and I rarely use this term, is Oscar-worthy. Finally, Angarano is perfectly cast in the role of the quintessential underdog, in what I believe is the performance of his career. No young actor today has the ability to say so much with his eyes and facial expressions, and as the boy who becomes father to the man he sets a new standard for others who follow to live up to.
Black Irish carves a new benchmark in the coming-of-age genre. Because it is so much more than that. The audience cheered at the end of the screening here. It was a response I've not heard at any of the 70+ films I've seen at 7 festivals this year. It is deserving of your time, and will truly touch your heart as it did mine.
I attended the World Premiere of
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- Author: Larry Richman
- Posted: October 23, 2006
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