White Irish Drinkers, which opens this Friday nationwide, is the name of the best-written, most tightly directed new Irish American coming of age film in over two decades.
Set in 1975, the film follows 18-year-old Brian Leary (Nick Thurston in a terrific performance) a young man seemingly trapped for life in his working class Irish American ghetto in Brooklyn, where he survives by pulling off petty crimes with help from his streetwise older brother Danny, whom he both fears and loves.
Brian doesn’t want to be a hood, but he doesn’t want any of the obvious career tracks on offer to him in his hardworking, hard drinking neighborhood either. Even his best buddy Todd (who has seemingly betrayed his own roots by accepting a scholarship to college) is on a life path that just doesn’t appeal to him.
So Brian’s fate is anyone’s guess, and it starts to look like he’s not going to make it.
But the thing that is most remarkable about Brian is the thing he keeps most secret – he’s a genuinely talented artist. At home he paints pictures of the city walls that are closing in on him.
It’s a wonder he can find time to create anything at all with all the explosive shouting matches going on between his father (Stephen Long) and his long-suffering mother (Karen Allen).
From the opening scene, what makes White Irish Drinkers worth your time at the cinema this weekend is that it introduces us to this combustible world without a trace of sentimentality or cliché, and that fact alone makes it a distinctive Irish American film.
The characters are all recognizably authentic, but it was the strong script that attracted actors like Karen Allen (best known for Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Peter Riegert (best known for Animal House) alongside screen powerhouse Stephen Lang (who plays the relentless military sergeant in Avatar).
But first of all there’s the provocative title of the film itself. Did that title give any of the cast seconds thoughts?
“The name caught my attention for sure, but you don’t say yes to the name,” Reigert tells the Irish Voice. “It was the script and the strength of the script – it certainly wasn’t the salaries.”
Allen agrees. “Three things attracted me – the first thing was what a beautiful piece of writing it was. The second part was knowing that Stephen and Peter were going to do it. Then I had some conversations on the phone with the director John Gray, and that was it for me.”
Riegert and Allen agree that the script is consistent about who their characters are and what they say -- and that what they don’t say is also such a huge part of the final film.
Allen adds, “A lot of times you’ll read scripts that will indicate what kind of emotions are being expressed, and that’s always slightly deadly. I think that when I’d worked with John for a few days on the shoot that he’d guide me in the way a scene ought to go.
“I decided if I was just as simple and truthful as could be and get inside the skin of this person, I felt that the cast was just often on the same page on set. I kind of grew up in this world, and this is not a foreign world to me.”
The narrow and tough world of White Irish Drinkers is not an easy world to live in, but it’s full of surprises.
Brian’s dad is prone to terrifying rages and violent outbursts but he tries hard to communicate with his sons when he can. His mother doesn’t understand what Brian wants or what will happen to him when he leaves, but she supports him in the only way she knows how.
It’s the authentic roughness of the world the talented cast brings to life and the pared down performances that make this a memorable film.
Sure, we’ve seen films in the past where young heroes like Brian have to choose between his loyalty to a difficult brother and the deep love-hate bond between them -- or to instead choose his emerging talent as an artist as his own ticket out of a dead end life.
But what makes White Irish Drinkers catch fire is the sheer originality of its theme and treatment, and its quiet refusal to take the easy route, much like the characters it portrays.