Carmel Winter’s much-lauded first feature film is not easy viewing. Opening on a fraught warm-up interview with hard-bitten single mother Sandra, the story follows the tensions and revelations that spring from her involvement in a documentary about her son Stephen, who at 15 kidnapped a two-year-old boy and kept him for five days in the house of his hospitalised grandfather. Interspersed with this footage is older film, particularly old home video clips from Stephen’s childhood captured by his grandfather, alongside Sandra’s life off-screen and various flashbacks.
It’s clear from the outset that there is a very dark heart to this story. Mother and son’s trials by media are clear – there are bundles of hate-mail defiantly burnt by Sandra in the sink, clippings of sensationalised stories, a newspaper calling so persistently that Sandra throws the telephone out a window.
But more intriguing are the private ordeals. Sandra is uncompromising in her lack of maternal instincts – she’s a teenage mother who never warmed to the notion, later revealed as a reformed alcoholic. There are queasier depths to come.
The core of the film is the tangled relationship between Stephen and Sandra – the complexities and contradictions of these two deeply damaged people are examined unflinchingly, the off-camera tale providing a necessary concrete under the shifting sands of the “documentary”.
Shot in just four weeks, the film makes great use of colour – Sandra’s apartment a pale arctic blue, Granddad’s darker house full of shades of brown and old-fashioned, colourful accents, warm yet stifling.The editing echoes the quicksilver of memory, revealing the story fragment by fragment, an increasing sense of dread swelled by the evocative score and building to a subtle revelation of an ending.
Stephen Moran is extraordinary as the unstable son, unsettlingly self-assured, oscillating between affection and hostility with baby Adam. Aisling O’Sullivan is the beating heart of this twisted tale, by turns fiery and brittle, with curious glints of misplaced tenderness.
A powerful film about an endlessly difficult subject.