There’s an unavoidable shortcoming to every gay coming-of-age story in terms of resonating with key parts of the audience demographic. Namely, it has to be either a young boy or a young girl going through it, rarely both, which blunts some of the impact for viewers of the other gender. Dating Amber resolves that issue by presenting us essentially co-protagonists who are both grappling with a sexual orientation that isn’t the least bit viable in Ireland of 1995, prompting them to date in order to serve as each other’s beards. David Freyne’s film might just as easily be called Dating Eddie, after the other of these co-protagonists.
Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) has got the deck stacked against him in his rural Irish military town, where he attends a Catholic school full of ruthless piss-takers and others eager to create incidental emotional damage wherever possible. (Their vulgar sexual pantomimes are legendary.) Not only is he the son of a military dad (Aidan Gillen lookalike Barry Ward), for whom the possibility of his son being gay is not even a consideration, but Eddie won’t even admit his preference to himself. When his frenemies in the school yard egg him on about which girl he likes – if he doesn’t like someone, they tell him it means he’s gay – it results in an awkward kissing session with a girl who’s smoking and chewing gum at the same time. This is no way to live.
Fortunately, Amber (Lola Petticrew) has essentially the same dilemma. The schoolyard dickheads call her a “lezzer,” which she is, but she doesn’t want anyone else to know that. Her gaydar goes off big time when she sees Eddie squirming, and she comes to him with a proposition: They date each other to get all those dickheads, plus maybe their own parents, off their backs. Eddie initially turns her down – “I mean, I’m not actually gay” – but daydreams of his maths teacher convince him it’s time to come to grips with reality. To himself and to Amber, anyway.
Dating Amber has got both Irish wicked charm and perceptiveness to spare. Eddie may be a shrinking violet, but Amber is a brassy dame who’s likely to pepper her speech with words like “fooking” and “arsehole,” no less of a loyal friend for her rough edges. Maybe he’s just accustomed to taking orders from drill instructors, because that kind of dynamic develops between Amber and Eddie as well, where she constantly has to slap some sense into him. But the bond they develop as fake boyfriend and girlfriend, strengthened by the kinship of their shared secret, is sweet enough that you’re almost shipping for them, even though that makes no sense and is entirely contrary to the point of the movie.
The supporting cast provides plenty of help in both the wicked charm and perceptiveness departments. A key role here is Eddie’s mum, played by Sharon Horgan, the co-creator and co-star of the brilliant gone-but-not-forgotten TV series Catastrophe. She’s got her own sadnesses to deal with – she’s becoming estranged from her husband, who is often away for his work in the military, but not such a bad guy all told. It’s poignant to see how her own concerns have blinded her to the most obvious thing in the world, that her son is gay, which she has to discover by finding a notebook filled with drawings of male genitalia. “Right,” she says, in that moment doing three things: putting the pieces together, realising her own neglect, and worrying for the future of her son in a town that’s merciless on people who are different.
“This town will kill you” as Amber is fond of saying, and she’s not really joking – she lost her father to a suicide within the past few years. So her mother (Simone Kirby) is something of a mess as well, warning her daughter of the dangers of teen pregnancy, and in the next breath recommending she wear some lipstick so she won’t look so drab. She’s also far from the mark on what’s actually going on … but may be better equipped to deal with it than she initially looks.
There’s some heavy subject matter in a script that Freyne based on his own adolescence. That’s not really the feeling you get from Dating Amber, though. It’s got the look and feel of some similar Irish coming-of-age comedies in recent years, particularly Sing Street, and finds plenty of absurdity in the daily life of this small military town. For example, Eddie opens the film by riding his bike through a live fire exercise because he’s listening to Pulp on his Walkman headphones.
Fortunately, this is not the type of movie where Eddie is going to take a stray bullet to the brain. Whatever else it is, Dating Amber is optimistic about the notion that “it gets better.” Freyne may be seeing his own childhood through rose-coloured glasses, but the fact that he came away with that optimism means something was feeding it. Maybe with a few simpatico friends and generous loved ones, it already is better.
Dating Amber opens in Australian cinemas tomorrow, July 8th.