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'The Quiet Girl' Review: How Could Anyone Leave This Girl With Strangers?

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | February 3, 2023 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | February 3, 2023 |


Perhaps some of our readers in the US have experienced it themselves, but I’m not sure how familiar they are with abject, developing-world poverty. It is a kind of poverty that stands out because there is now a visible, gaping hole in the living standards between those in the middle classes (or even working classes) and those that are simply poor. Whenever you are exposed to that kind of poverty, usually through volunteering, it feels like getting a glimpse of the communities that Modernity forgot. Most of them have smartphones, many have satellite TV or the Internet (it keeps children off the streets) and some might be as progressive as your bohemian-hipstery neighborhoods. But Modernity is more than just the difference between outhouses and bathrooms, it’s also about cultural capital, personal self-appraisal, and the structures of kinship. Witnessing that degree of poverty makes you realize, for example, that expecting kindness from your family is also a privilege.

The lack of kindness within a family is highly circumstantial. I would dare say it looks like a bell curve, with the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor being most at risk. Nevertheless, extreme poverty leaves you particularly vulnerable to a dysfunctional familial environment, all exceptions counted. I am not talking about tough love. Tough love is just kindness during an Emergency. I am talking about environments where children are a source of existential anxiety first, second and so forth, to the point it erases all expressions of love. Key to this is being submerged in an environment that never gave you the possibility of deciding the whens and whethers of having kids. Rinse and repeat when those same children turn into adults. Or something close to it.

So, what happens to a child raised in an environment devoid of kindness when they’re suddenly taken to a warm home?

This is the experience explored by The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin), the first theatrical feature by Colm Bairéad, adapted from the novella Foster by Claire Keegan, and currently the first Irish-language movie ever nominated to the Oscars as Best Foreign Language Feature. Set in Ireland in 1981 (a period of economic calamity), the movie centers on nine-year-old Cáit (Catherine Clinch), the middle-daughter of five children in a dejectedly poor rural family. With another baby on the way, she is sent during the summer to live with distant relatives of her mother’s, the Kinsellas, a childless middle-aged couple, comparatively much better off.

Cáit is not just reserved, she is silent, the kind of child that realized, much too early, the best way to get through the day is to be invisible. Not that her siblings get any more attention from her parents: The Mam (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is busy keeping the house together and accosted by infants crying. The Dá (Michael Patric) is the kind that will pick up Cáit, stop by the pub to down a pint, and then continue driving home, too drunk and too neglectful to realize he drove away with Cáit’s suitcase when he drops her at the Kinsellas’. Bairéad has a masterful command of those subtle visual details that tell everything, from a small damp circle in a mattress, the filling of a briefcase pouring out or the casual contempt in Dá’s face reflected in the rearview mirror. All of these are, effectively, what Cáit sees, glimpses from a world from which she has never expected love.

It all changes with at the Kinsellas’ farm, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley), the wife, joyfully taking up on the motherly role. Unlike in the novella, the husband, Séan (Andrew Bennett) is much more reluctant to embrace Cáit, but he is slowly melted into a doting, if not effusive, papa bear. Cáit, in turn, begins to blossom and enjoy herself, for the first time. However, a melancholy hovers over the Kinsellas’ home, something which becomes very evident from Cáit’s first night there.

There is a loss in that home, but the real sadness for the three is the prospect of having to return Cáit to her biological family. The absurd notion of having to return the most adorable girl imaginable to a family that can only see her as a mouth to feed. In many ways, this is a movie about a girl learning the language of kindness.

The movie is made up of subtle, quiet but disarming performances from a cast that transpires the inner lives of the characters, or in the case of Michael Patric’s Dá, of a man who has no inner life. I think his might be one of the best portrayals of the kind of men that know no other language but abuse and disengagement. But this is Catherine Clinch’s movie, the young Cáit. How can you describe the mastery in the performance of a nine-year old (her first ever)? Clinch’s Cáit is a character that observes, but also a character that has learned not to react, to keep everything she is bottled down and locked, someone who is just realizing she is allowed to have a personality. The comparisons with Saoirse Ronan are predictable … but they make all the sense in the world. They share that same skill of being able to convey myriads of emotions with the kind of minimal facial movements that no face-recognition software could ever process.

The Quiet Girl is what you properly call a beautiful film, a film about beautiful things, but also a heartbreaking one because it never forgets how poverty can deprive you of your humanity.

The Quiet Girl is available on VOD in the UK & Ireland and premieres soon in the US.