'Black Irish' a small Southie tale with a big heart
With "Black Irish" arriving in theaters, we appear to have achieved a perfect storm of Boston-themed movies. "The Game Plan" is proudly plastic, "Gone Baby Gone" is close to the real deal (or the real myth), and "Irish" falls modestly in the middle: a small-bore Southie coming-of-age drama whose heart is just a bit bigger than its cliches.
This is the sort of handcrafted item that wows audiences at local film festivals only to fall through the multiplex cracks, so if you like your indie cinema on the thoughtfully sincere side, seek out "Black Irish" before it's gone. Writer-director Brad Gann may not be a son of South Boston - it turns out he's a nice Jewish boy from West Hartford, Conn., who knew? - but he understands the pressures of trying to grow up decent in an emotional war zone.
He also marshals a strong cast doing strong work: fast-rising Michael Angarano as the teenage hero, dead-eyed Tom Guiry ("Steel City") as his thug brother, Ireland's Brendan Gleeson ("Troy") as the old man, beaten and profane. As the boys' mother, Melissa Leo (TV's "Homicide") gives off waves of tight-lipped Catholic martyrdom. You know these people. If you're lucky, you're not related to them.
The movie is set in South Boston but thankfully doesn't make a big deal of it: Accents are present but not paraded, local establishing shots are minimal. The Sox are on TV but none of the characters bother with a play-by-play. Because Gann isn't from here, he doesn't have to prove he is, so he lets the story do the talking.
Unfortunately, there's a little too much of it. Cole McKay (Angarano) is a Southie kid trying to do right - polishing his knuckleball and doing altar-boy duty, mostly - but when his sister (Emily VanCamp) gets pregnant and is shipped off to a home for unwed mothers, his parents pull him out of Catholic school and put him in the public zoo with big brother Terry. Waiting for the bus the first day, Terry makes Cole return his borrowed pants, stripping him down in front of the other kids. So much for sibling support.
Nor is dad any better. A bitterly funny early scene has Desmond (Gleeson) telling off Cole's headmaster priest after the latter warns the boy about fighting off sexual thoughts. "That's a crock if ever I heard it," Desmond bellows. "That tingling . . . is the most natural thing in the world, and no amount of praying's going to make it go away."
"Black Irish" thus sets up the bruising, familiar tension between dogma and impulse, church and family, doing what's right and doing what's expected of you - and it portrays the juggling act as nearly impossible to sustain, in this life anyway. Angarano makes Cole's dilemma achingly sympathetic by not hamming it up; he's every kid who has ever kept his head down and hoped he could get by unnoticed.
He gets hopeful glimmers of the (slightly) wider world: a school baseball coach, a forgiving cop, the boy's boss (Michael Rispoli) at a local Italian restaurant - a wiser, kinder Artie Bucco. Then he comes home and the accusatory game of failure, blame, and neglect begins again.
We've seen this story in other, edgier films, from "Mean Streets" to the recent "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints," and for a while "Black Irish" keeps it fresh by staying close to its characters. Then the melodrama starts piling up: robberies and terminal diseases and family revelations and teary hospital-bed resolutions, most of them occurring on one absurdly busy night. The quietly harsh naturalism the movie has constructed gets betrayed by the need to Wrap Things Up.
There's a real writer in Gann, though, and possibly the makings of a real filmmaker, one more interested in how characters move through the world than in where they end up. If he trusts his instincts, he may yet get there. I'll bet he'll have to go back to his own neighborhood first.