Irish films win acclaim at Sundance Film Festival

A scene from the film Sing Street. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institue.A scene from the film Sing Street. Photo courtesy of Sundance Institue.

Among the dozens of foreign films screened at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Irish features offered some of the strongest and strangest showings. The Emerald Isle consistently churns out a mix of charming quirk and compelling narrative at the festival in snowy Park City, Utah each year, and its unusually high number of offerings this year have been met with positive buzz and clamorous applause.

Sundance favorite John Carney, who burst onto the world stage in 2006 with his written/directed Irish musical Once, returned this year with the charming coming-of-age musical Sing Street. Carney brings the semi-autobiographical rock drama set in 1980s Dublin to life with youthful exuberance and original songs that cleverly evoke the rock staples of the era.

Sing Street follows Conor, played by newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, as a middle-class teen dropped in a rough state-run Christian Brothers school on Synge Street after his family hits financial hardship. Along with a ragtag group of friends, Conor starts a rock band to win the heart of the cool and 80s-permed Raphina (Lucy Boynton), riffing affectionately on everything from Duran Duran to The Cure and The Clash with cheerful abandon.

Experienced Irish talent helms the less-adolescent side of the film, with Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy making deft turns as Conor’s financially-strapped parents.  

Met with a standing ovation at its Sundance world premiere, Sing Street is a refreshing breath of pure musical joy and teenage romantic wish-fulfilment among a slew of twisting, brooding independent films. Carney shows once again a masterful take on the contemporary performance-centered movie musical, without quite the tight focus of Once but with what feels like a natural return to Ireland after his more broadly commercial New York-based 2013 release Begin Again.

Already sparkling from its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015, The Lobster was featured in the Sundance Spotlight section, which highlights some of independent film’s buzziest offerings.

The bizarre, sharply funny, and surreptitiously touching satire of a society obsessed with romantic coupling is the Greek writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’s first English language film. It features a riveting cast, including Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, in a searing send up of nuclear couplehood against the dour backdrop of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

In a world where single-dom is considered uncomfortable at best and a societal hazard at worst, unattached adults are sent to an imposing Hotel for treatment. Understanding that if they fail to fall in love in their allotted time, they will be transformed into animals of their choosing, the guests employ their wiles to avoid a bestial fate.

Another Irish film shown in the Spotlight category was the Benicio del Toro-produced Viva, the story of a young man working in a drag club in Havana, Cuba. When Jesus (Héctor Medina) is given the opportunity to perform as one of the drag queens, his estranged, abusive father (Jorge Perugoría) re-enters his life. Director Paddy Breathnach, of Dublin, known for creating the Irish comedy Man About Dog, received acclaim for Viva at the Telluride FIlm Festival in Colorado.

Initial reviews were positive for both Irish-produced romantic comedy Love & Friendship, directed by Whit Stillman, and Irish director Rebecca Daly’s Mammal. An adaptation of Jane Austen’s early novel Lady Susan, Love & Friendship stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny and follows the schemes of a beautiful widow staying with in-laws. Mammal is a quiet story about a grieving mother (Rachel Griffith) who befriends a homeless teenager (Barry Keoghan) after the death of her son in contemporary Dublin.

Ireland is represented among the many short films screened at the sky-high festival by A Coat Made Dark. The 10-minute short follows two burglars who steal a mysterious coat that gifts them with a stroke of luck. Midnight, an anthropomorphized dog, and his human servant Peter struggle over the coat’s power in this animated black comedy.