Robert G. O’Donnell looks back at the Oscar-nominated, Bafta-winning short film Boogaloo and Graham and examines the film’s thematic exploration of current cultural anxieties through its symbolic context.
Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney don’t have a conventional pet story on their hands with 2015’s award-winning Boogaloo and Graham. Set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1978, the story of a working class family in the midst of The Troubles has everything you’d expect from Ireland’s burgeoning film industry, but it’s the film’s layer-cake like structure that reveals not only a culture struggling to come to terms with political and social trauma, but also with its evolution from a relatively agrarian society to major player in an ever urbanized European economic reality.
From the first moments of the film, a symbolic order is firmly established, yet even so, the tension of the film is never disingenuous. At the film’s open, British Army regulars patrol a typical Belfast neighborhood, and an as yet unidentified man, just on the other side of his garden wall from the soldiers, unpacks a box. The beauty Lennox creates here in these opening seconds is multi-faceted. First, while a mother overlooks the street from an upstairs window, the audience can’t be sure if she’s contemptuous of the soldiers on the street or the man in the garden unpacking the box, whose contents are unidentifiable because of careful camera work and deliberate framing. One wonders if this is another misguided Republican attempt at unification. Second, after letting the audience’s assumptions congeal, two young chickens and a smile emerge from the box. Lennox’s directorial choice demonstrates that despite the constant threat of a lethal confrontation, anything that stands to be lost or gained will be confined to walls of the house. Frankie Lymon’s bouncy tenor singing “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” on the soundtrack heightens both this insular sense of innocence and the one spot of goodness Jamesy and Malachy have in their young lives by strolling along with the boys as they allow their chickens to explore the world through city walks, 99’s, and an annoyed mother. The irony of this, of course, becomes palpable in the film’s climactic scene when in spite of itself, the audience can readily believe in a tragic accident. And this reveals a third facet in the opening seconds: Lennox and Blaney challenge numerous assumptions about politics, innocence, and cultural tension while pushing the limits of the audience’s safe space.
Having pierced the luxurious fondant Lennox rolls out his the opening scenes, delicate editing nuance and a mastery of subtlety comprise a delicate sponge that reveals external forces guiding the family within this paradoxically menacing yet comfortable mise-en-scène. For instance, the very presence of chickens in her city home frazzles the boys’ mother endlessly. From Boogaloo and Graham soiling the boys’ bed to invading her sink space and beauty tools to Mother labelling Father “a lazy bastard” for his transient farm work, Mother, in no uncertain terms, aggressively resists any pastoral notion in her home. Seen from a larger context, this is urban anxiety writ small. As Ireland generally, and Belfast particularly, struggles to find an economic identity after the death of the Celtic Tiger, the mother shows that despite her best efforts, she ultimately recognizes that in order to participate in a diversifying economic reality, as demonstrated by her pregnancy which is revealed later in the film, she must embrace certain foundational values. In this case, her making room for a bucolic cultural relic (the chickens) is not mutually exclusive of progress (the new baby). In fact, this tension is played out ever more visibly in real life with the proliferation of farmers’ markets and co-ops as consumers become ever more aware of their food supply chain.
Adding further complexity, the film brings both food miles awareness and dramatic tension literally to the table. After the boys bathe the chickens in mother’s good sink for allegedly “stinkin’,” a close shot of a genuinely confused bantam cuts away to a golden roasted fowl, succulent and ready for supper. Again reaching the limits of both credibility and what the symbolic order will tolerate, viewers assume a vengeful mother and passive father have indeed executed, in all that word implies, Mother’s desire to be rid of the chickens.
However, this juxtaposition reinforces not only Lennox and Blaney’s acid humor and sense of timing, but it also shows how conflicted the father is about the new dynamic he’s created relative to the pregnancy announcement he’s about to make, which in turn parallels the agrarian/urban tension thematically underscoring the film. As an occasional farm laborer, the father’s choice of pet makes sense; however, it serves no practical purpose other than giving the boys something to love. Yet here he sits at the dinner table torn between making space for one new arrival at the expense of another. When the boys are called for dinner, they pause before sitting down, nearly believing they’re about to eat one of their own chickens. They fearfully look out the window to check on their beloveds. Relieved they’re still alive, the boys pre-empt father’s announcement with one of their own: they’re going to be vegetarian. Except for sausages. And burgers. And they’ll be chicken farmers when they grow up. But, father announces mother is pregnant and gives the boys their ultimatum.
Comic relief notwithstanding, this exchange reveals three things. First, the boys see the chickens as their way to carve out autonomy amid monotony. When Father offers a dog as an alternative, the boys cry out, “But everyone’s got a dog!” and “We’ve learned so much!”, defending their pets. Treating the chickens much like dogs by walking them, the boys’ welcome the varied reactions around town, from a young girl looking at them askance to a soldier in an armored vehicle smiling broadly at the incongruity.
Second, this threat to the only things they love in the world triggers the climax as the boys stage an intrepid midnight jailbreak to save the birds from execution. Unnecessarily and cartoonishly tying bedsheets together to lower themselves out a window, the boys’ escape shifts their protected, domestic struggle into the traumatic real world. With Father running desperately after them, the boys encounter soldiers engaging a suspect, and a shot is fired. Again, through careful editing, timing, and contextualizing the boys as innocents in the warlike atmosphere of The Troubles, the audience will be forgiven for a faltering breath or skipping a heartbeat. But, as is subtly reinforced throughout the film (in the opening and the dinner scene, for example), the narrative won’t allow this kind of tragedy; the audience knows this but still they’re held rapt by its very prospect.
Thirdly, father confirms what is suggested earlier by the inclusion of Frankie Lymon’s song: his love for his boys, and by extension their love for their chickens, precipitates foolishness, but this foolishness is ultimately what allows the family some measure of happiness within the traumatic context of Belfast. While Father clearly struggles with the birds’ impending execution, he discovers an egg in the makeshift pen. This minor boon stays Boogaloo and Graham’s execution, with Jamesy citing the economic benefit: “It’ll save us bucket loads!”. But, an older Jamesy voicing-over reveals that for long afterwards, Father staged Booglaoo’s egg laying by putting an egg out in the pen every morning, ensuring their survival. While plainly, and perhaps saccharinely, suggesting that the family’s love can always make room for one more, Father’s intervention demonstrates that harmony between urban and rural sensibilities can be achieved through utilitarianism. Father’s prefers to keep the chickens alive, but it’s also an illogical choice to have brought them into the home in the first place. Ethically speaking, the film equates the rural ideals of simplicity, safety, and husbandry with the complexity, danger, and commerce of urban development. This final scene resolves that conflict, implying that this possibility exists for the entire community if not just for this one home.
Boogaloo and Graham rests lightly on the palate, but it’s not without an enduring aftertaste. The boys fighting for what they love despite the uncontrollable world around them certainly parallels the many competing narratives inherent in the film’s context, but it also reveals that big picture thinking instead of expediency might have far reaching benefits. At once a story of childhood and discovery, this film achieves universal appeal though its caustic wit, deft editing, and commitment to thematic elements. For all its subtlety, though, Boogaloo and Graham ultimately reminds the audience that sometimes illogical utility is just what we need to laugh at ourselves.
Robert G. O’Donnell is a professor of composition and rhetoric at Columbus State Community College and Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio. His professional interests centre on reviewing film and theatre and cultural literary criticism of both American and European literature.
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