Once in a while a film comes out of Ireland that seems to upend all the ones that came before it.
In 2008 it was the midlands epic "Eden" and the shoestring rock musical "Once" that wowed critics and audiences with their simple but affecting storylines and stellar performances.
Then last year Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s chiller "The Eclipse" seemed to invent its own genre.
In 2010 the drama that looks unlike anything that’s come out of Ireland before is "My Brothers," currently showing at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Written by Irish screenwriter Will Collins, 33, and directed by British man Paul Fraser, 37, it’s a tender story about three young working class Cork brothers who take an impromptu road trip together as they struggle to cope with their father’s imminent death.
As storylines go, that may sound like a grim one, but the performances by the young Irish cast and the assured direction lift this film far above its occasional contrivances to turn it into something deeply affecting.
As the film begins, their father (Don Wycherley) is already close to death and the eldest boy is busy storing his fears in a private journal.
“Soon it will be over,” writes 17-year-old Noel (Timmy Creed). “Soon it will be every man for himself.”
It’s hard to tell if the film is autobiographical or fiction as you’re watching it because it’s so well observed that it feels personal, as if it was the record of an actual life experience replayed in front of your eyes.
But that’s what makes "My Brothers" such an understated marvel. Director Fraser has filled it with so much emotional authenticity that it rings true in every scene.
There are no tricks, there’s no flashy dialogue, there aren’t any colorful characters or quaint scenes to distract you.
Instead "My Brothers" is a sparse but powerful new work, relying on its own elegant simplicity to make its points.
“If Daddy dies on the holidays,” asks the youngest boy Scwally (T.J. Griffin), “do we still get time off from school when we get back?”
It’s the slow motion death of their father and the three boys’ individual responses to it that make for such an interesting film.
Noel, the oldest boy, is already haunted by the inevitable, but Paudie (Paul Courtney), the spirited 12-year-old middle kid, has decided the way to get through it all is by toughing it out and telling jokes (even though there’s real pathos hidden beneath all his playacting).
That leaves Scwally, the 7-year-old Star Wars obsessed kid, who can’t grasp the gravity of the situation that’s facing them all.
With a setup like this it would be all too easy to tilt over into crass sentimentality, but miraculously "My Brothers" never does.
It’s half funny, half heartbreaking questions like Scwally’s mentioned above that keep the audience at a necessary remove from the three characters. Because the audience has the luxury of deciding whether to laugh or cry, but for the boys the choice is a bit more complicated.
So the emotional wallop of My Brothers slowly sneaks up on you, accumulating as each scene progresses. You’ll barely notice how affecting it is until it hits you (and it can’t fail to hit you). And that glacial pace and the gradual way the story reveals itself are what drew Fraser to it in the first place.
“Two years ago Will Collins showed me the script,” Fraser tells the Irish Voice. “I thought it was beautiful and by then I had wanted to direct something. Finally he delivered a draft back to me that was just awesome.
“Collins’ voice is also very similar to my own (Fraser is also an award winning author) when I write which is a strange situation to be in. About six months after meeting him I mentioned to the Irish Film Board that I wouldn’t mind directing 'My Brothers.' From then on it just snowballed.”
But "My Brothers" was already in pre-production before Fraser decided if he wanted to direct it or not. He had previously directed a series of short films, but he was still on the fence about moving into feature films.
So it became a case of fate taking over. The financing was in place and he decided to run with it.
“We had a tiny budget and we made it work on that,” says Fraser. “The film is set during Halloween 1987 and we shot it in Ireland in November when the daylight hours felt like they stretched from half 10 till half 12.
“The shoot also coincided with one of the worst rainfalls Ireland’s ever had. Except for the point it just wouldn’t rain. We thought someone must be having a laugh. Why would an Irish film crew need to hire a rain machine in November?”
"My Brothers" has two distinct sections. First comes the road trip where we discover who the three lads are and what they’re facing into, and there’s plenty of comedy and adventures involved. Then the tone darkens and sibling rivalries break out, as does the awareness of what’s coming up for them.
Actor Timmy Creed, at 17 the oldest and also the most accomplished actor of the three lads, knew he’d be a shoe-in for the role when he was asked if had a driver’s license (his character steals a van for the road trip). For Creed the biggest challenge facing all three first time actors was becoming comfortable in front of the cameras.
“Paul told us to relax into our characters as much as we could and not be bothered by the crew and the lights,” says Creed.
“After a few days we got used to it. It just seemed to flow from there. There was lots of improvisation and rehearsals before the shoot and we relied on them too.”
None of the three boys look like each other at all, but their performances make you believe they’re brothers. All the bickering and leg pulling and laughter are totally convincing.
Fraser turns on the camera and records it all, and that gives My Brothers its unexpected depth.
And just how important is a Tribeca Film Festival launch for producers and distributors? Well, just witness the extended travel arrangements that My Brothers producers Rebecca O’Flanagan and Robert Walpole (the producers of last year’s "The Eclipse") made to get it here on time.
Fearing that the volcano eruption in Iceland would prevent them from flying over in time for the opening night, the intrepid pair planned a trip that would have made the great explorers of the 19th century think twice.
“The producers actually drove to the ferry port in Dublin and got on the ferry to Wales, then they drove the 400 miles to the south coast of England where they got the ferry across to France,” says Fraser.
“In France they drove all the way to the one airport in Spain that was flying to South America. There they flew to Bogota, Colombia and then to Florida, and then to New York. They wanted to be sure to get here for the film’s opening, and they brought the final edit of the film so they didn’t want to miss the slot.”
That’s how important a showing at the Tribeca Film Festival is. Their epic journey actually made The New York Post last week.
Thankfully the air cleared and flights were finally permitted to take off, allowing the Irish cast to attend the opening night, which was held last Friday.
"My Brothers" is currently playing at the festival. It’s worth a similar effort on your own part to see it. Visit www.tribecafilm.com.