Black Irish

| October 29, 2007

Family is the gauntlet we pass through from childhood into adulthood. It’s what defines us. It’s also what we have to break free from in some fashion–either dramatic or not–to become wholly realized as individuals. Yet that rite of passage is freighted with the knowledge that breaking free of it never fully happens. Where we came from will always be a part of who we are. Blood is indeed thicker than water.
It’s this turn into manhood and all the struggles that come with it that Black Irish, written and directed by Brad Gann (Invincible), draws its story from. Gann displays his considerable skill as a storyteller with a finely nuanced script and shows promise as a director (it’s his directorial debut) with his mostly excellent handling of a strong, talented cast. Altogether, he turns in an engaging picture that makes up for its ruggedness with a sharp story told with confidence and clarity.
Fifteen-year-old Cole McKay, (Michael Angaranno from Sky High, Lords of Dogtown), is a dutiful son. He’s the youngest of three siblings in a hard luck working class Irish family in Boston. He’s the good son in the shadow of his angry, petty thieving older brother Terry (Mystic River‘s Tom Guiry). Cole works hard in school. He seems determined to enter the Priesthood, yet he’s got talent as a baseball player. Where we catch up with Cole in Black Irish, is where that coming of age transition hits him and his world–his family–is turned upside down. When it does he makes the difficult transformation to manhood, despite the rigors of his rough and tumble family.
Looming larger than life in Cole’s way is his hard drinking, temperamental father, Desmond (played beautifully by Brendan Gleeson from Harry Potter and Braveheart). Desmond sees all the good things he hoped he would be in Cole and therefore can’t bring himself to open up his heart to his youngest son. This emotional distance haunts Cole through the story as he struggles to find ways he can connect with his father. The two share a love of baseball and its there, on the diamond, that Cole most hungers for his father’s approval, but can’t seem to earn it.
Woven into their story are several excellent sub-plots, most notably one that deals with the painful divide between a mother and a daughter caught on opposite sides of a generation gap. Margaret (played by Melissa Leo, 21 Grams), the mother of the Cole family, imparts upon her daughter, Kathleen (played by Everwood‘s Emily Vancamp) a code of ethics that Kathleen’s not completely certain she believes in. The two clash over who’s right and who’s wrong–highlighting that generational gap in their personal conflict. Both actresses bring tense and complex layers to their story, building it into deeply felt crescendo.
Overall, Black Irish displays a strong story and a strong cast doing confident work. Brad Gann’s best decisions as a first-time director were to let his story tell itself and to cast his picture with this fine company of actors. The picture does have its rough edges–notably the cinematography that starts off evocative and distinct, but seems to settle into an afterschool special feel towards the end. All in all Black Irish–written and directed by Brad Gann–is a sharp coming of age drama with a story that captures the essence of family and the conflict they generate that turns us into who we are and how that stays with us for the rest of our adult lives. Blood is, indeed, thicker than water.

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