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July 2010


cast: Kelly O'Neil, Shane Curry, and David Bendito

director: Lance Daly

72 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont


Clocking in at 72 beautiful minutes, Lance Daly's Kisses is the cinematic embodiment of the phrase 'short but sweet'. Initially shot in grainy black and white, the film is set on a working class street somewhere in North Dublin. Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O'Neil) are a pair of pre-pubescent kids who are united by their physical proximity and the fact that they both have pretty wretched home lives.

Dylan is bullied at school and has to deal with his work-shy alcoholic father whose ineffectual raging at the world frequently results in fists being raised both to his wife and his youngest son. Isolated and horribly alone, Dylan has retreated into a world of video games but his shyness and refusal to make friends only makes things worse. Kylie is just as miserable as Dylan. Bullied by her sisters and girls at school, Kylie has to deal with a profoundly ill-tempered mother who leaves most of her child-care responsibilities up to Kylie. However, where Dylan has reacted to his unpleasantness by withdrawing from the world, Kylie has reacted by becoming incredibly sweet and well-intentioned almost out of spite.

One day, Dylan gets into an argument with his father. In an attempt to avoid the drunkard's flailing fists, Dylan climbs out the window and escapes with the help of Kylie. Grabbing a wad of money the young girl (inexplicably) has under her bed, the pair run off together, hitching a ride into town on the back of a boat driven by a pleasingly eccentric Brazilian council employee (David Bendito). Once in town, grainy black and white gives way to neon colours as the pair run about spending their money, buying sweets and searching for Dylan's brother who ran away from home and is now reportedly living in a squat.

Like a sugar high, the fantastical and joyful otherworldliness of the pair's shopping spree soon gives way to a grinding come-down as they discover that Dylan's brother has not found life in a squat any easier than life at home. Following only the faintest of clues, the pair work their way down through the layers of Dublin society from the comfortable bourgeois existence of the shopping centres to the depressed but hopeful world of the city's underclass to the horrors of life on the streets.

As in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995), the largely empty time the pair spend together leads to them opening up to each other and forming a delicate and tender bond of friendship as the solipsistically introverted Dylan allows his rage to get the better of him while the chipper and ravishingly lovely Kylie reveals that the horrors of her home life go much deeper than mere bullying and neglect.

The performances by Curry and O'Neil are sensational in their subtleties and O'Neil in particular has 'star' written right through her like a stick of rock. These kids do a sensational job of portraying what are actually quite complex and conflicted characters and it is entirely to Daly's credit that he managed to channel his script through children who seem to have been selected on the basis of mass auditions held at a normal school. Indeed, I suspect that the kids' performances may well have come to something of a surprise to Daly himself as Kisses' script has a quite obvious 'plan B' built into it.

Kisses is a film all about emotional thawing. The pay off comes in the final scene where Kylie, reunited with her parents, blows a kiss across the garden fence to Dylan. For a moment, the greyness that has crept back into the characters lives is replaced with the neon hyper-realism of Dublin's shopping centres. A visual change that stands for an important emotional one: Yes, the kids are back at home. Yes, their home lives are still shit, but now they have each other.

In order for this moment of cinematic flair to pay-off, Kisses needs its audience to believe that the characters have progressed and that they are no longer the beaten and depressed creatures they were before their night of fantasy. The subtlety of O'Neil and Curry's performances more than sell this final denouement but, had the performances not been up to scratch, then the film could well have relied upon the car chase and the dose of peril that Daly injects into the script towards the end of the second act. If changes in body language, facial expression and intonation do not sell emotional movement then overcoming a shared danger will generally do the trick. Unfortunately, O'Neil and Curry's performances are so good that the car chase feels like overkill.

The problem is that Kisses is a film that uses shifts in colour to denote shifts in ontological register. So, at the beginning of the film, we have a black and white palette to convey the grimness of the kids' lives. Then we move into Dublin itself and the colours become bright and the camerawork dream-like, reflecting the happiness of the children. Towards the end of the film, as the kids drift into the Dublin underworld, the colours begin to leech out of the film until eventually returning to black and white as the kids are taken home to their parents.

The changes in colour and camera movement indicate a shift from realism to fantasy and from happiness to sadness. What is jarring is that the car chase comes at a time when the film is gearing back down towards realism despite the fact that car chases in general, and this car chase in particular, are not generally part of what you'd consider 'real life'. This momentary disconnect between the film's fascinating visual motif and its subject matter strikes me as somewhat unfortunate. It is one thing to sacrifice the coherence of such an elegant aesthetic in order to sell a film's climax, but it is quite another to insert it for no apparent reason. Kisses would have been a more effective film had Daly ditched the car chase. This is why there are no sword fights in Before Sunrise.

Minor quibble aside, Kisses is a real heart-warmer. A delicately made and beautifully acted gem that lasts just long enough to enchant and make its point without overstaying its welcome. The DVD comes with an intriguing if rather over-edited 'making-of' documentary that shows some of the challenges Daly faced in wrangling his seemingly non-professional child cast.

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