Irish Gaelic is a beautiful and near-extinct spoken language. Although revitalization attempts routinely occur in Ireland’s cities, the only remaining people for whom Irish Gaelic is their first language are country dwellers – often seaside villagers – who specialize as seanchaí (storytellers). As the language is generally used by these craftspeople to expound Ireland’s deep cultural heritage, it is fitting that The Quiet Girl’s (“An Cailín Ciúin”) writer/director Colm Bairéad chose to include it as the form of expression in the richest and warmest relationships of young protagonist Cáit (Catherine Clinch).
Cáit is more reserved than her four sisters and intentionally isolates herself, so she is easily neglected by her distant and overwhelmed mother “Mam” (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) and her lackadaisical and ill-tempered father “Da” (Michael Patric). When the couple find that they are expecting a sixth child, they send Cáit away for the summer to live with Mam’s unfamiliar cousins Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett). The warmth of the household offers a breath of fresh air and a growth opportunity for Cáit, but the dread of summer’s end and Eibhlín and Seán’s shadowy past challenge how long she can keep hold of her newfound security.
Crowley and Bennett both deliver powerfully affecting performances; Patric plays a believably poor excuse for a father, Chonaonaigh makes Mam seem constantly on the verge of stress tears, and Clinch’s acting debut is outstanding (let’s hope she keeps making movies like this and Marvel doesn’t pick her up for Generic Young Avenger #9). But the real show-stealer here is the chemistry these characters have with one another. You could cut the tension with a knife when Da interacts with Eibhlín and Seán – the internal battle between the couple that wants to take care of a child between the father who doesn’t seem to care about her. For The Quiet Girl to work, the relationship between Cáit and her foster parents must believably bring Cáit out of her shell. The relationship between these three characters is so authentically tender that the audience cannot help but desperately hope they remain close forever.
Everything about the presentation of The Quiet Girl evokes rural 1980s. The period-perfect costume and set design contextualize the dual English/Irish Gaelic languages conversationally spoken by the Irish in the mid-twentieth century. Bairéad makes the insightful choice to shoot the movie in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, adding a classic and intimate home video-like quality to the world that Cáit quietly observes. Rural Ireland is also lovingly (and scathingly) represented in the character types, including the Jane Austen-esque vitriolic gossip Úna (Joan Sheehy). Appropriate to a rural environment, Úna’s venomous influence on the story is so profound that she stands just behind Mam and Da as a most dangerous threat to Cáit’s emotional well-being.
The Quiet Girl offers an unfortunate and timeless axiom – incompetent parents often keep having children, simultaneously creating and poisoning one life after another. The icing on this disappointing cake is that the children placed by fate into these toxic environments tend to latch onto adults that treat them with alien concepts of understanding and dignity. These champions of would-be simple kindness tend to be grandparents, aunts and uncles, and, in Cáit’s case, well-placed cousins. The truth is you don’t have to be any of these blood-bound connections – anyone with a touch of empathy can help to create a secure world for children to inhabit.
The movie is well worth a watch, even though Cáit’s plight is by no means a happy story. Its quality makes me want to seek out its source material, the novel Foster by Claire Keegan. I hope even more for a sequel where Cáit grows up to be a happy and functional adult who returns frequently to visit her short-term foster parents. That joyful thought will probably remain only in my headcanon. Regardless, The Quiet Girl is a highly-deserving Academy Award nominee for best international feature and, as the first Irish-language film to be shortlisted for an Oscar, a worthy carrier of the legacy of the Emerald Isle.