Matthew Briody gives a bird’s-eye view of The Sparrow.

What happens when a mistake made in the heat of the moment ends in tragedy? Michael Kinirons answers this with his gripping feature length debut, The Sparrow. A haunting examination of jealousy and anguish, this film shines a light on the fractured psyche of a teenage boy named Kevin Coyle.

An initial establishing shot introduces Kevin (Ollie West) as an isolated figure. An outsider,  Kevin struggles to navigate his familial and personal relationships. At home, The tension between Kevin and his father, Larry (David O’Hara), is palpable; Larry’s a stoic man who doesn’t hesitate to dole out harsh punishments. When Kevin is caught breaking the law, Larry enlists Kevin’s older brother, Robbie (Éanna Hardwicke), to dole out a violent blow. Gentle, creative, Kevin is the outlier, as Robbie is set to follow in his father’s footsteps, having been accepted to a coveted role training with the Irish Defence Forces.

Meanwhile, Kevin holds tightly to the memory of his late mother, keeping her memory on something of a pedestal.  He cherishes a picture of her, in which she smokes a cigarette in one hand and holds a pint in the other. In her Pogues T-shirt, both the family resemblance and implication is clear: Kevin is the wild child that Larry can barely look at, a constant reminder of his troubled past with his wife.

A local teenager, Hanna (Isabelle Connolly) starts to chat with Kevin. A fellow free spirit, who also sports Pogues attire, Hanna informs Kevin that “póg” means kissing in Irish. As tensions rise in the Coyle household, and Kevin interprets Hanna’s outreach as romantic interest, a violent incident sets the stage for tragedy. 

This film is a forensic examination of the cost of performative masculinity, featuring themes familiar from Michael Kinirons’s past work. Throughout his filmography, youth and the adolescent male have featured heavily, from his debut film, Falling Angels (2004) to his follow up, Treeclimber (2007). Whether it’s two teenagers boys mitching from school for the day, or a young boy climbing the highest tree in the forest, the writer/director’s narrative focus remains on point.

The cast is small, but with a rich chemistry. Each supporting role is elevated by the talented thespians on screen. David O’Hara is particularly impressive as Larry, terrifying and commanding at times, with a deep vein of vulnerability and pain underneath. Ollie West is unforgettable in what is impressively his first film role. His tormented portrayal of a teenage boy on the brink is fuelled by raw emotion and underpinned by a primal rage.

The sound mix adds to the sense of dread, and causing the unease to build steadily. The opening scenes, often shot in nature are peaceful, until an awful thud which follows a harrowing incident. This distinct sound is replayed in moments of intense silence, haunting Kevin.

The visuals are striking. One character wears a bright red hoodie at a pivotal moment, similar to the iconic red coat seen in Nicholas Roeg’s psychological horror, Don’t Look Now (1973). This vivid use of colour perfectly suits a film where everything is clouded by the constant sense of danger. Throughout most of The Sparrow, Kevin struggles with isolation and self doubt, which is emphasised in frame utilising the location. The small coastal village of Baltimore, County Cork and surrounding landscape often engulf him. For one beat, he floats in the sea, his eyes closed. Or as he sits in his childhood swing, his house looming over him, Kevin is often dwarfed by his surroundings, and is sometimes caught by the shadow of his brother and father.

Walking the line between drama and psychological thriller, The Sparrow delivers equal parts intrigue and emotion. The unravelling psychology at the core of this story is gripping to witness. Like waves crashing against the shoreline, truths, lies and major revelations all come flooding in. The nuance of the complex relationships is handled deftly by Kinirons; his sharp writing leads to rich, emotive arcs. As the film reaches its violent and somewhat inevitable conclusion, the tightly constructed narrative of the The Sparrow soars to cinematic heights.

In cinemas 5th July.

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