Conor Dowling checks out Paul O’Brien’s debut feature Staid, which screened at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
Before anything else it should be noted that Staid is remarkable simply for existing at all. Made for the almost ludicrous sum of €300, writer and director Paul O’Brien has helmed what is basically a community production, with cast and crew sourced from his hometown of Wexford. At a moment when there seems to be something of a contest in Irish cinema to test how little finance a good film needs, Staid boldly, and largely successfully, undercuts much of the market.
The story deals with Baby (Adrienne Meyler), a middle-aged bar-owner in small-town Ireland struggling against the dreary prospects life seems to have left to offer. Trapped in depression, Baby finds relief in flirting with barman and small-time musician Finn (Paul Creane). Finn dreams of going out into the world and is only held in place by his own feelings for Baby, who seems resolute in going nowhere. Ineptly trying to tie the pair together is the elderly Lar (Phil Lyons), an old soul whose life revolves around his dog and whose would-be wisdom provides much of the film’s comedy. Set mostly on a single day, as Finn prepares to leave, the trio are challenged to make the decisions that could lift them out of the mire.
Lives weighed down by fear, characters who find it easier to sink into old memories than go out to create new ones, are common enough themes to Irish narratives, and as a story of small town paralysis, Staid risks moving into familiar territory. With this in mind, it is to O’Brien’s credit that he finds ways to make this vital. The kitchen-sink realism the story demands is grubby in its precision. Overcooked eggs are poured into the sink, a bottle, picked up as a weapon, drips onto the floor. O’Brien has a keen sense for the real and his detail moves between grit and comedy – a door marked ‘push’, for example, is always pulled.
Set against this dirt, however, is one of the film’s real distinguishing features: its music. Creane is one of several musicians in the cast and O’Brien is bold enough to just allow them to perform when the moment demands. While not a musical, key moments in the story arrive through song rather than dialogue, with these lighter moments throwing the misery of the kitchen sink into greater relief.
For all the music, however, the film’s ace-in-the-hole is Adrienne Meyler. As Baby, Meyler delivers a genuinely nuanced performance. At the same time as she provides the pillar her male friends lean on in difficult moments, she fights to not break down at the prospect of what has become a joyless life. It is Meyler’s inhabiting this space between two extremes that carries the film.
Staid seems to invite comparisons with Gerard Barrett’s Pilgrim Hill, another micro-budget film dealing with life wasting away unnoticed. Like Barrett, O’Brien makes a virtue of his restraints and turns what assets are available – most notably the musicians at his disposal – into the film’s distinguishing qualities.
Music, indeed, is just one part of the optimistic vision that O’Brien brings to what is often very heavy material. Even if it deals with depressed isolation this is, basically, a comic film. Indeed, its most positive quality may be that it exists at all; at the same time that it worries about the deadening effects of rural life, this small-town film proves that there’s energy in those places yet.
Staid screened on 27th February 2016 as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival (18 – 28 February)