This tender Irish drama proves the quietest films can have the most to say
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Paul Mescal, one of five Irish actors nominated for an Oscar this year, recently made headlines by giving a red carpet interview in Irish, which is considered one of Europe's most endangered languages. As it happens, the much-acclaimed drama "The Quiet Girl" recently made Oscar history by becoming the first Irish-language production ever to be nominated for best international feature. It's now playing in U.S. theaters, and our film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The late film critic Roger Ebert once wrote, what moves me emotionally is more often goodness than sadness. It's a sentiment I've always shared, and I thought about it again while watching the beautifully crafted Irish drama "The Quiet Girl." There is plenty of sadness in this tender story about a withdrawn 9-year-old who spends a fateful summer with two distant relatives. But the movie, adapted from a Claire Keegan story called "Foster," doesn't rub your nose in the character's unhappiness. What brought me to tears more than once was the movie's unfashionable optimism, its insistence that goodness exists and that simple acts of decency really can be life-changing.
The story is set in 1981. Although given the remoteness of its rural, Irish setting, it could easily be taking place decades earlier. The dialogue is subtitled because the characters speak mostly Irish, a language we rarely hear in movies. The quiet girl of the title is named Cait, and she's played with aching sensitivity by a gifted, first-time actor named Catherine Clinch. Cait is the shyest and most neglected kid in her poor farming family. Her short-tempered mother has her hands full taking care of Cait's siblings, and her father is a gambler, a philanderer and an all-around lout. At home and at school, Cait does her best to stay under the radar. It's no wonder that the first time we see her, the camera has to pan down to find her hiding beneath tall blades of grass.
With too many mouths to feed and another baby on the way, it's decided that Cait will spend the summer with relatives. Her mother's older cousin, Eibhlin, and her husband, Sean, live a three-hour drive away. They're played wonderfully by Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett. From the moment Eibhlin welcomes Cait into their house, she lavishes the girl with kindness and attention. She engages her in conversation, involves her in household chores and responds in the most loving way when Cait wets the bed on her first night. Sean is gruffer with Cait at first, but he warms to her soon enough. There's a lovely little moment when, after angrily scolding her for wandering off by herself, Sean silently leaves a cookie on the table for her - an apology extended entirely without words. In their way, Eibhlin and Sean are as reserved as Cait is, especially compared with some of their cruel, gossipy neighbors.
One of the most refreshing things about "The Quiet Girl" is that it doesn't treat silence as some problem that needs to be solved. When someone criticizes Cait early on for being so quiet, Sean gently defends her, saying, she says as much as she has to say. And yet we see how Cait gradually flourishes under her guardians' loving attention. Clinch's luminous performance shows us what it's like for a child to experience real, carefree happiness for the first time, whether it's Eibhlin offering Cait a drink of crystalline water from the well near their house or Sean pressing a little pocket money into the girl's hands. Sean and Eibhlin are clearly delighted by this temporary addition to their household, in part because it chases away some of the sorrow they've experienced in their own lives. The source of that sorrow isn't made clear right away, though you'll likely figure it out if you're paying close attention.
When the truth does come out, it's treated with a gentle matter-of-factness that, much like the unfussy, natural beauty of Kate McCullough's cinematography, deepens our sense of immersion in these characters' lives. "The Quiet Girl" was written and directed by Colm Bairead, an Irish filmmaker whose background is in documentaries. That may account, in part, for how exquisitely observed his first narrative feature is. Bairead trusts the power of understatement. And that's a rare thing, given how prone so many films are to noise and over-explanation. Not many movies would focus on a character as unassuming as Cait. But there's nothing small or insignificant about her story. Sometimes it's the quietest movies that turn out to have the most to say.
GROSS: Justin Chang is film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "The Quiet Girl," an Oscar-nominated film from Ireland. Because of inflation and other economic problems resulting from the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, you've probably been hearing a lot about the Federal Reserve. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what the Federal Reserve is, what it does and why inflation is a problem these days. Our guest will be Jeanna Smialek, who writes about the economy and covers the Fed for The New York Times. In a new book, she says, yes, the Fed is powerful, probably even more powerful than you think. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. My thanks to the awesome Dave Davies for hosting last week while I took the week off. I'm Terry Gross.
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