Colm Bairéad’s debut feature marks Ireland’s first film to be nominated for Best International Film at the Academy Awards. Bairéad has some family film elements that cross over into a coming-of-age story that draws both pleasant and heartbreaking results. Rich in visual poetry, The Quiet Girl has all the makings of being something sentimental or whimsical, but instead it takes a wiser and more restrained approach with its emotionally charged story.
The narrative adapted from Irish author Claire Keegan’s novel titled Foster features reticent 9-year-old Cáit (Catherine Clinch) from an impoverished home who goes off to stay with distant relatives during the course of a summer in 1981 in Northern Ireland. Cait and her mother’s cousin and husband gradually bond over the course of a summer in which Cait is very reserved, and she begins to find love, care, and attention that she certainly does not have at her dysfunctional home. The characters speak in a singular Irish language that has subtitles; the only English heard is on radio commercials. The film’s approach to storytelling and tone reflects Cait’s own muted characteristics. While the film is very quiet and restrained in approach, its emotional pull is undeniably euphoric. The film is filled with quite a few emotional payoffs, none ever feel hurried or manipulative. In fact, every aspect of the film is genuine and sincere because of how subtle it is.
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For starters, the film has the tone of a parable, and Bairéad observes more than he tells. Without any exposition or insight, it’s never revealed why Cait goes to spend the summer with an older couple, Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley) and Sean Kinsella (Andrew Bennett). It’s obvious she lives in a very confined home, she is the oldest of her three siblings, and her mother has another newborn on the way. Cait often avoids her family. Whether it’s her running off to the field, closing herself off from her family in her room, and often avoiding the consequences of her constantly wetting her bed, you can sense Cate is very timid with her family. We never see any emotional or physical abuse, but her neglectful father (Michael Patric) often teases her and spends most of his time at the pub. Her home feels like a musty prison that she feels confined and cramped in.
Contrary to the home of Eibhlin and Sean, whose house on a dairy farm is refurbished, spotless, and less cluttered. The cinematography by Kate McCullough feels far more spacious and less confined to Cait’s home. Bairéad also uses a sharp contrast to stage the action of the two homes. The majority of the drama in Cait’s home is cut away from her family, and the characters never share the same frame. As opposed to the Kinsella’s home, where almost all of the action is staged in the same frame, the camerawork feels more inviting. There are almost more insert shots of the sun and nature, as well as more natural light, which gives the film a more alluring feel.
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Yet there is still the Kinsellas’ unspoken grief for their late son, who drowned after falling into a water well when he was about Cate’s age. You can sense Sean recalling his fond memories of his child when Cate is around. It’s a different type of disconnect from what she often experiences with her family. It’s more built on grief than being spiteful. As Sean has Cate help with some of the dairy farm chores, he ends up opening up to her. Clocking her sprints in as she runs and giving her cookies, you can sense a father figure manifesting. Eibhlin is also in pain, but she is far more extroverted with her love. Especially in a very affecting moment when she takes Cate to buy some new clothes after her father left her suitcase in the trunk of his car after he dropped her off. Both Sean and Eibhlin look after Cate in very caring ways that she’s not used to.
The Quiet Girl is not only one of the most impressive of the five Best International Films, it’s certainly one of the most impressive Oscar nominated films in all categories. It is a film of many artistic strengths. It doesn’t manipulate the narrative for you with contrived plotting, it doesn’t engage you with cloying sentimentality, and it doesn’t hit you over the head with overwritten dramatic scenes or larger-than-life characters. The film’s final scene, which I won’t reveal, is soul-crushing. You would have to be heartless if you didn’t shed a tear at its closing images. It leaves a sense of catharsis, but it also leaves room for potential possibilities and a shimmer of hope. Much like its protagonist, the film is delicate and understated, delivering a subtle sense of the healing power of being nurtured. With that, it makes for an enthralling, unique coming-of-age story.
The Quiet Girl opens in limited theaters Friday, February 24th. It opens at Cinema Detroit on Friday, March 10th.