Loretta Goff takes a look at Frank Berry’s tale of Michael, a luckless 18-year-old who is misfortunate to be sent to prison.
Michael Inside takes a hard look at the ways that young people from disadvantaged communities can become caught in a cycle of crime that they have no desire to become a part of. The film follows 18-year-old Michael McCrea (Dafhyd Flynn), who lives with his grandfather Francis McCrea (Lalor Roddy) in a Dublin housing estate. Michael’s father is in prison, his mother died of a drug overdose when he was young, and he left school early, working odd jobs instead. However, he shows a desire to follow the “right path” and an interest in furthering his education on a social care course.
Unfortunately, Michael’s life derails simply because of a series of naïve mistakes, the result of both his youth and his environment. Though he is only on the side-lines of criminal activity, he is sent to prison for three months in an attempt by the judge to shock him into correcting his behaviour. The consequences of this decision are devastating.
Dafhyd Flynn delivers an understated, emotional performance as Michael. Quiet and contemplative, his vulnerability is made evident as his incarceration looms. This is subtly mirrored by the equally excellent performance of Lalor Roddy as his grandfather, who puts on a brave face and offers words of assurance, but again exposes hidden worry in quiet moments. The faces of both these actors do the work of revealing all that is left unsaid in the film, and they do it quite well, eliciting empathy from viewers.
Once inside, Michael is forced not only to grow up quickly, but also to harden. He is repeatedly told that he must fight back and, when he is taken under the wing of Moe Dunford’s character, this becomes inevitable. This character, with another strong performance from Dunford, appears to be on the precipice of violence at any given moment and holds a position of power within the prison, having been there for a while. Under his protection, Michael not only begins to develop a penchant for fighting back, but is also drawn in to the periphery of crime in much the same way as he was on the outside.
Dunford’s character warns Michael that “your sentence only starts when you’re released”, and this appears to hold some truth for Michael who, despite trying to turn his life around, is caught in a cycle of crime and incarceration. Director Frank Berry does an excellent job of framing Michael in such a way that he appears trapped both inside and outside of prison. This occurs not only through the repeated pressure to do favours for criminals in both places, but also with shots of Michael looking through grates on a bridge that mirror the grated windows of the prison and of shots from outside his house that look in on him, framed and trapped in the lit window, surrounded by the exterior darkness.
Authenticity was important to Berry, who also wrote this film, and in the Q&A following the screening at the Cork Film Festival he discussed the amount of research involved. He got the idea for it after making his last film in Tallaght (I Used to Live Here, in which Flynn also had a role), and knew he wanted to focus the narrative on a grandson and grandfather—a family dynamic seen a lot in disadvantaged areas. Berry had quite a few discussions with youth in these communities who did not want to become involved in crime, but were positioned there, and equally decided to reflect this in the film. He approached the Irish penal system with this idea and was set up with the prison rehabilitation service Pathways, which enabled him to interview a number of former prisoners about how being incarcerated changed their lives and ways of thinking.
Berry’s research and dedication to accurately representing the experiences of those he interviewed shows in his film. Michael Inside makes us feel for its titular character and, through the frustrating nature of the path his life takes, reveals the flaws in our systems. Dafhyd Flynn perhaps captured it best during the Q&A, saying that when he watches the film he “sees truth”.
Michael Inside, which won Best Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh, also won the Audience Award at the 62nd Cork Film Festival.
Michael Inside screened on 16th November 2017 as part of the 2017 Cork Film Festival (10 – 19 November)