BIFF Review: The Quiet Girl

Arriving at BIFF on a wave of awards in both its native Ireland and abroad, Colm Bairéad‘s feature debut “The Quiet Girl” tells a deceptively simple tale of love and family as seen through the eyes of a withdrawn young girl.

Primarily presented in the Irish language (and already the highest-grossing Irish-language movie of all time), Bairéad’s narrative feature debut is a minimalist marvel, and its reception as it has toured the world’s film festivals stands testament to that fact.

Based on the 2010 short story “Foster” by Claire Keegan, “The Quiet Girl” tells the story of Cáit (Catherine Clinch), a 9-year-old girl who is sent away to live with distant relatives for the summer of 1981 in Waterford, along the southern coast of Ireland.

Cáit is a reserved, shy child, and her home life is not a happy one. Bullied in school, unable to connect with her siblings, and rendered near-mute by an emotionally distant and quick-to-anger father (Michael Patric), she is bundled away to live with her mother’s distant cousins, handwaved away as a mere nuisance who they don’t want to deal with while a new baby arrives into the struggling family.

As Cáit and her father (notably, the only character in the film to speak entirely in English) arrive in Waterford, they are greeted by her new guardians Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett).

Seán, whose own farm seems to be doing markedly better than Cáit’s father’s, is left to deal with the gruff conversation between the men, while Cáit is immediately welcomed by the almost comically lovely and nurturing Eibhlín.

Image: BIFF

The young girl remains withdrawn for a while, but it’s clear that these relative strangers are providing so much more love than she’s ever received in her own home. Running without cutaways to the loveless home left behind, this larger chunk of the film has the feel of the endless summers of childhood. Not without sadness or fear, but it’s impossible not to be moved by the contrasts between Cáit’s two lives.

Presented, somewhat uniquely in 2022, in the Academy aspect ratio that’s much closer to the 4:3 of 80s televisions, the film manages to both beautifully evoke an Ireland of a time gone by while also not making the time period into the centerpiece. Aside from the older cars and lack of modern technology, this is a story that could take place in any era and be rendered no less effective.

The heart of the film, really, is the young Catherine Clinch in her role as Cáit, the first screen role for the newcomer. Ably supported by strong performances from the suite of character actors around her (no mean feat when you’ve had to look for actors who also speak Irish), Clinch is an absolute revelation.

With the film told almost entirely from her perspective, and with her cumulative dialogue being perhaps less than the length of this review, Clinch is expected to do a lot of heavy lifting with her eyes and her mannerisms, and she is immediately convincing, endearing, and heart-breaking in the role.

“The Quiet Girl” is not a complex tale, but it is a beautiful one. It feels delicate, fragile even, and has a sincerity and honesty that can be hard to find in cinema sometimes. It’s a film that with a mere 90 minutes of your time taken just leaves you, desperately, desperately hoping for a happy ending, and while it refuses to wrap everything up in a neat package, it’s a film of such a pure heart and quiet confidence that I think I could recommend it to anyone.

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