To be wanted. To not be wanted. That simple tension is the heart of The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin), Ireland's first-ever Best International Feature Film Oscar nominee. It's an extraordinary, tiny, intimate, and deeply touching story of a childhood suddenly filled with that most fragile of gifts: hope.
That's something that's been lacking for Cáit (Clinch), the spare child in an overstuffed and loveless family in a mud-caked corner of rural Ireland in 1981. Hers is a life of grinding poverty, one of hand-me-down dresses and milk as a meal, one that her once-again-pregnant mam (Chonaonaigh) and aggressively disinterested da (Patric) seem incapable of escaping. And Cáit's not a troublemaker, but trouble seems to find her, so they pack her off to live with her mammy's warm and welcoming cousin, Eibhlín (Crowley), and her taciturn husband, Seán (Bennett), until the baby's born.
It's a setup that has been a mainstay of literary fiction since before Anne unpacked her bags at Green Gables, the idea of the lost child finding unconventional love in a seemingly prickly new home. But in adapting Claire Keegan's award-winning 2009 novella, Foster, writer/director Colm Bairéad pulls back on the quirkiness that is so often an element of these stories and instead threatens to drown the audience in a quiet, heartbreaking, and heartwarming compassion.
Aptly, little is said in The Quiet Girl. Instead, objects are imbued with near-mystical history and meaning. A bag of rhubarb. A purloined biscuit, and one freely given. A wardrobe filled with boy's clothes. And there is deeper meaning still in quiet glances and little smiles, like those that flutter across Eibhlín's face in a performance from Crowley that positively glows with warmth for this ghostlike waif that has drifted on the tides of misfortune to her home.
As Cáit, and in her first screen role, Clinch is quietly captivating because she understands the power of doing nothing. It's both a personality trait and a defense mechanism, with Cáit's abuse and neglect more implied that explicitly shown. Yet it's in her scenes with Bennett that Cáit becomes the most fully formed, and in those moments Bennett himself adds something truly transformative to The Quiet Girl. It's akin to what David Knell achieved as the flustered Chef Finway in Pig, a performance that does so little on the surface but is bubbling from its depths, much like the all-important well that provides clean water – magic water, as Eibhlín tells Cáit – to the farm.
The Quiet Girl unfurls gently, blossoming like Cáit herself – still a pallid bloom but beginning to see that it's possible to be herself. It leads to an ending that may be this year's most perfect cinematic Rorschach test. It's a road that forks, yet it's not enigmatic. That's what's so wonderful about Bairéad's fragile and intricate story, that it seems so simple but leads only to possibilities, and one word – said twice – that will be engraved upon your heart.
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