IFTA Exclusive Screening: ‘The O’Briens’

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IFTA presented an exclusive screening of new Irish feature The O’Briens in September at Dublin’s Savoy Cinema. James Phelan was there to catch a first look at Richard Waters’ film, shot entirely in Galway on a shoestring budget and financed independently by the film’s producers.

DIR: Richard Waters • PRO:  Slaine Kelly,  Emmett Hughes, Richard Kearney, Ciara Byrne, Alison Scarff • ED: Richard Waters • DOP: David Laird  Music: Nicky Royston • CAST: Liam McMahon , Slaine Kelly. Emmett Hughes, Tommy O’Neill, Kellie Blaise, Amber Jean Rowan, Paddy C. Courtney, Lochlainn O Mearain

We’ve all become accustomed and almost immune to Irish low-budget features because of an overwhelming sameness in both approach and subject matter. Sci-fi and horror are attempted regularly, often without adequate resources and with wildly varying results. Less common is the rom-com, but still a few are made on a shoestring per year. Rarest of all perhaps is the family drama which is hardly ever tackled at all – let alone with next to no budget.

That’s the situation that actors turned producers Slaine Kelly and Emmett Hughes found themselves in when promised funding fell through at the last minute. With a crew and cast assembled on location in Galway, the easy decision would have been to pull the plug. Instead, they pulled the trigger and went ahead and shot.

The gamble has already paid dividends with the film scooping the Outstanding Filmmaking Achievement Award at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California, where the film also received a second screening due to audience demand.

What really sets The O Briens apart though is how well it looks. Usually any Irish film with a bare bones budget employs the ‘Festen’ approach – all rough handheld and heavy pixallated digital footage. This film eschews that in favour of a composed and colourful aesthetic that miraculously borders on glossy at times.

It undoubtedly helps that a ridiculously photogenic cast depict the central family. Summoned home from around the globe, this clan gathering is more like a model convention. Seriously, this must be the most attractive Irish family since the Corrs. Crucially though, the purely surface appeal of the players is backed up with some real talent. There is an especially luminous turn from Kellie Blaise that could well be a star-making role if seen by enough people. Lochlainn O Mearain is equally excellent as a sexually frustrated husband striving to save his business and his marriage in the same weekend.

The multi-tasking creative duo of Kelly and Hughes also wrote the script so naturally enough, they crafted some meaty roles for themselves. Kelly is too impossibly pretty to ever be the dowdy wife but she displays a deft range as the put upon Una. It’s a graceful delicate performance that anchors the entire film but generously allows the spotlight to shine on the rest of the ensemble.  Meanwhile, Hughes bravely takes on a character that is initially difficult to warm to but his snarky attitude continually provides big laughs as well as the emotional climax of the film.

Elsewhere, the film has fun with some tropes. The ubiquitous Paddy Courtney pops up as the local comic relief but the filmmakers work a wonderfully clever variation on his ubiquity by having him perform every role that should have gone to an extra. It’s a witty solution to a potential production problem. Likewise, director Richard Waters does an excellent job of concealing the lack of resources with clever staging and colourful compositions.

Like the family itself, the film has some issues. The script still contains the odd clunky line, albeit offset by some smashing exchanges and memorable quips. While the sound side of the film appears to have a few gremlins that have never been fully ironed out.

Overall, The O Briens is a bright and riotous ride emitting charm and humour in abundance. If ever a film is going to contribute to tourism, it’s a film like this. Without ever pushing the blarney button, it conjures a compelling and relevant image of the country while still retaining a real romanticism about living in the West of Ireland. This is a warm, vibrant and handsome drama that invites and can live with comparisons with movies like The Family Stone’ or even The Big Chill.

Having created a considerable something from close to nothing, the makers of this film deserve a chance with some real budget and some proper backing.

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