Unlikely Lads – ★★★½
Nick Kelly’s debut feature is a buddy movie with a difference. A story of two young men in Dublin who become unlikely friends – one of them is a disgruntled bipolar drummer in a rock band, the other has Asperger’s syndrome and has been institutionalised.
Dermot Murphy is Gabriel, who we first encounter setting fire to a car on a beach and who we later learn lost his mother when she took her own life, leaving Gabriel and his sister Alice (Aoibhinn McGinnity) to pick up the pieces. Gabriel’s main social outlet is his rock band where bandmates Pearse and Toss (Charlie Kelly and Peter Coonan) seem like they’d rather not linger too much on the fact their friend and bandmate needs real help.
As part of Gabriel’s treatment and to counter side-effects of his medication, he is told physical activity would be good for him so he starts playing football with a local mixed ability group. Here he meets Christopher (Jacob McCarthy), a 17-year-old wannabe goalkeeper with Asperger’s whose mother and step-father have opted to place him into a private institution rather than keep him at home.
Gabriel and Christopher are two superbly written characters who feel believable and relatable. Nick Kelly should be commended for his work in his script of developing them as friends, as the inevitable gutpunch of the issues that arise later on in the film has a huge impact. This work into their characters does come at the expense of the supporting cast who are not given as much time on-screen to be anything other than links between plot points. Kelly is a man who knows his way around the Dublin music scene, and while there are a lot of wannabe rockers with one-dimensional personalities out there, even at that the band dynamics here are very stilted.
Kelly was front-man for ‘The Fat Lady Sings’, but his band here feel quite retro in how they’re run with no band WhatsApp groups, Facebook event pages, and the age-old big-time ruse of “there’s a big management guy coming to see our gig this week – don’t mess up”. But realism is not the intention here. The film’s title gives the game away as this story is all about the drummer, and the keeper.
Kelly’s sensitivity around depicting characters with mental health challenges is superb and is clearly the result of considered research and real-life exposure. Aspergers syndrome and autism is something that filmmakers are afraid to go near for fear of inaccurate, damaging depictions, but Kelly absolutely nails it and the plaudits from audience members at the Fleadh World Premiere who live and work with people with autism will likely have meant a lot. Gabriel’s bi-polar condition is not explored as much as it could have been, but in a lot of ways the issue of autism is more central to the story.
The third act has more in common with a fairy-tale than a gritty film of social realism (not a bad thing), but if you’ve bought into the dynamics of the central friendship then the ending feels perfect. The film deserves to find an audience and gets a huge thumbs up for the two leads as Murphy and McCarthy are superb – prep those IFTAs now.
Director Nick Kelly
Cast Dermot Murphy, Jacob McCarthy, Charlie Kelly & Peter Coonan
Script Nick Kelly
Producer Kate McColgan
Duration 92 minutes
The Drummer and the Keeper has been acquired for distribution by Element Pictures Distribution and will be released in Irish cinemas on September 8th