"The Quiet Girl" (An Cailin Ciuin) may be a shoo-in for a Best Foreign Language Film this awards season. But I think the time has come to ask why stop there?
It's not often an Irish language film gets a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the influential internet film site.
But then it went further and named 'The Quiet Girl (An Cailin Ciuin)' the Best Film of 2022.
That's an extraordinary achievement for a low-budget Irish language film, which is currently busy breaking box office records, so awards season is clearly starting early for this small but perfectly crafted film.
The first thing you need to know is that The Quiet Girl (An Cailin Ciuin) is coming to the Angelika Film Center for one week, starting December 16. The second thing is that the story it tells is simplicity itself, in fact, it's so simple it has an almost fairy tale quality at times.
It's 1981 in rural Ireland and Cait (gifted newcomer Catherine Clinch) is a visibly neglected young girl who's struggling in the midst of her loud dysfunctional family. Frail and haunted, she's no one's priority in a chaotic house full of conflict.
Director Colm Bairéad takes his time with the pacing and lets panels of Cait's lonely life unfold. Here she is at school after her mother has once again forgotten to pack her lunch, staring longingly at a thermos of hot tea on an empty desk.
Or here she is in the back of her father's secondhand car as he indiscreetly stops along the road to pick up the young woman he's seeing behind his wife's back, with no concern for what young Cait makes of it at all.
Scene after scene shows us she's no one's priority and that she's slowly dying from it in the way that neglected children do. But then her mother has an unexpected idea that changes everything.
Pregnant again and unable to face a house full of young mouths to feed, she hits on the idea of sending Cait, the least important one, away for the summer to stay with her sister and her husband in a house many miles away from all she has known.
Cait consents to this move without protest because she doesn't have a vocabulary for what she wants. Her older sisters don't come out to say goodbye to her when the day comes to leave and she barely looks out at the passing landscape until she arrives at her new home.
As a portrait of the quiet devastation of lovelessness, The Quiet Girl (An Cailin Ciuin) is one of the most elegantly understated examples I have ever seen committed to film. Clinch's open face always shows us what she is thinking and feeling before she can find a way to craftily conceal it. We root for her before we know it.
In the film's opening scenes we learn her father is a shambolic and cruel oaf whose appetite for alcohol and women defines his existence. He eventually drops Cait off with his wife's sister with all the care of a lazy postal worker throwing a parcel on the lawn.
There are two ways this story can go we realize at this point, but part of the surprise of this superb film is that it continually wrong-foots us in scene after scene.
Cait's aunt Eibhlin (played by Carrie Crowley, in a lovely and often mysterious turn) welcomes her to her well-kept home for the summer but her husband Sean presents a respectful but far more muted greeting, for reasons that will eventually be explained in a way that is unforgettably moving.
Aunt Eibhlin and Uncle Sean's farm, set under acres of tall trees, is as lush and welcoming as her own home was stark and cold and Cait slowly thaws out under the care of her sensitive aunt, who tells her “all you needed was a little minding.”
As Cait tools around their house, we see the windows looking out onto bright leaves, a metaphor for her own awakening. At Aunt Eibhlin's she is carefully scrubbed, and toweled down, her hair is brushed daily and her meals are not skipped or forgotten.
“Look how fast your complexion has improved,” Eibhlin tells her, after drinking some restorative cool water from the local well. But there is far more to Cait's awakening than a change of diet, of course.
It's never said in the film but love, in all its quiet wonder, is the real force of change at work. It rescues Cait from the drudgery and ignorance she grew up around and it helps her to discover and step into herself for the first time, under the watchful eye of her aunt and uncle.
This Cinderella-like transformation from kitchen drudge to confident young girl is a joy to watch, but The Quiet Girl (An Cailin Ciuin) doesn't hit you over the head with a montage of changes that oversells her growth.
Instead, the film is intimate, human scale, and quiet and because it is, all the little changes that do happen make you want to cheer. But writer Keegan knows that real life and Ireland don't often allow for conspicuous positive changes to occur without someone or something trying to upend them and that someone arrives in the person of the neighbor Una (Joan Sheehy, in a supporting actor masterclass).
Alongside the joy of Cait's steeping into herself is the real joy of hearing Irish spoken throughout this perfectly paced and directed film. Native Irish speakers and even those with the most fundamental grasp of the language will have no trouble understanding the many exchanges onscreen, which are often so simple they could be used in an Irish language lesson.
It's a measure of the increasing confidence and ambition of Irish language filmmakers and producers that they no longer flinch at the idea of funding a project of this kind for international markets.
So The Quiet Girl (An Cailin Ciuin) has some heavy lifting to do but Bairéad is equal to the task and his film is a stone-cold masterpiece, the most tonally important Irish film to be released (in any language) in a generation.
In recent Irish films like God's Creatures, Aisha, and now The Quiet Girl (An Cailin Ciuin) there is a new realism at work that suggests a growing cinematic interest in life as it is actually lived there. It should be supported and applauded.
The Quiet Girl (An Cailin Ciuin) may be a shoo-in for a Best Foreign Langauge Film this awards season. But I think the time has come to ask why stop there? As Rotten Tomatoes reminds us, it's also the Best Film of 2022. So why not the Best Film nominee at the Oscars? Dream bigger. Do not miss it.