Ireland’s Lovely, Heartbreaking Oscar Entry

Jan 21, 2023

Love and compassion don’t require grand gestures. Often, the subtlest actions forge the deepest, most meaningful connections — a patient ear, a shared space, a gentle hand. Colm Bairéad’s miraculous feature directorial debut “The Quiet Girl” is finely attuned to the soft magnitude those moments can carry for someone yearning for the smallest acts of kindness. Gorgeously realized and crafted with homespun care, this delicate and heartbreaking drama is one of the year’s best films. 
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If 10-year-old Cáit (newcomer Catherine Clinch) doesn’t say much, that’s because in the cramped, ramshackle, grimy household with three other sisters and her mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh), pregnant with her fifth child, it’s better to be forgotten than noticed. Particularly when Da (Michael Patric) — an abusive husband, resentful father, and failed farmer — enters a room like a weather system, his wife and children turning silent lest the wrong word sets off a lightning storm. Cáit is seen not just as an extra mouth to feed but as a burdensome oddball. She still wets the bed and spends her time alone, roaming the fields of tall grass surrounding their home. Even as small as she tries to make herself, she’s one responsibility too many to handle with a baby on the way. When Mam makes the difficult decision to send Cáit to relatives for the summer, Da can barely be bothered to look up from his horse racing forms.
Working like a magic trick, the 4:3 aspect ratio from cinematographer Kate McCullough that transmits the boxy suffocation of Cáit’s home life feels both cozy and widescreen the moment she arrives in County Waterford. It’s not just that the home of Mam’s cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and her husband Seán (Andrew Bennett) is bigger and cleaner, but the air is brighter, and the land pastoral. Set in the 1980s, Eibhlín and Seán’s house feels comfortably modern; comparatively, Cáit might as well have been coming from the previous century. She’s initially uncertain how to compose herself under the immediate warmth and watchfulness of Eibhlín in a house with so much space, including a well-sized room all her own. As for Seán, he initially maintains a cordial distance, wary of drawing too close.
Beautifully adapted by Bairéad from Claire Keegan’s novella “Foster,” a brilliant montage sequence, set to Eibhlín lovingly giving Cáit’s hair one hundred brushstrokes, shows the young girl becoming the serene force that pulls together a makeshift family. Each development is a minor earthquake as Cáit works side-by-side with a newly luminous Eibhlín to prepare meals and learn chores, their hands slipping together as they fetch buckets from the rainwater pond. If Cáit comes into her own under the wings of Eibhlín, it’s Seán who surprisingly gets her out of her shell. The moment he finally allows her to help him around the dairy farm, Cáit is a regular chatterbox, peppering him with questions and eager to earn his validation. Seán is quickly smitten, developing his own routine and relationship with Cáit, secreting her treats and money whenever he can. “What good is it having her here if we can’t spoil her?” he explains to Eibhlín. 
What “The Quiet Girl” understands so well is how the infinitesimal can accumulate into something unshakeable. From his core trio, Bairéad pulls performances that are measured out in time to a screenplay that considers, each step of the way, what it means for these characters to triangulate, and how each relationship affects the other. Cáit and Seán’s bond — it can’t be understated how terrific Clinch and Bennett are together — strengthens his marriage to Eibhlín. Meanwhile, she finds a new purpose in giving Cáit the kind of home she never had. As for Cáit, each day seems to be a new wonder, a window to a life she didn’t think was possible or within grasp. Bairéad directs it all with an understated stillness and a remarkable compositional eye. The camera doesn’t move much as each carefully constructed frame allows the minute gravitational changes from scene to scene to speak volumes. 
And yet, despite Eibhlín and Seán’s newfound happiness with Cáit, there is a pall of a past tragedy hanging above them, the clues in plain sight. The surfacing of this sorrow and the impending school year marks the end of their time together, creating an ache that pierces their bubble of deeply rooted affection they desperately try to ignore (Eibhlín shuts the radio as it plays an exuberant ad for school supplies). As “The Quiet Girl” reaches its unforgettable and heartbreaking final act, the road ahead for Cáit remains uncertain. But the hope we carry with us is that Cáit now has the strength to seek the nurturing light of care and tenderness wherever life takes her next. [A] 

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