Director: Dave Tynan Starring: Emmet Kirwan, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Seana Kerslake, Sarah Greene, Mark O’Halloran Running Time: 95 minutes
At the start of Dublin Oldschool, aspiring DJ Jason Kelly has what might be seen as a rough morning. He wakes up on the streets, is beaten with a stick and has money taken off him by some children, he’s hours late for work and has to leg it from the guards after a drug deal carried out with an amazing lack of subtlety, even for the streets of Dublin. And he loses his phone. If this is meant to show a man down on his luck however, Jason himself certainly doesn’t see it that way. He’s got far bigger things on his mind; the bank holiday weekend is about to start and Jason is gasping for the sesh. Both comparisons to Trainspotting and declarations that they should be avoided are well-worn territory for this film, but there’s a difference in perception between Ewan McGregor’s heroin-loving Renton and Emmet Kirwan’s pill-popping Jason. Renton saw himself as choosing not to choose life, consciously picking the numbing effects of heroin to gloss over the realities of rubbish modern life in Edinburgh. Jason is more in denial about just how much drugs are his life, determined to keep the party going no matter what. That determination to keep the party going keeps things fun, but presents problems too, both for Jason and for Dublin Oldschool in general.
As it turns out, the only thing that can rouse Jason from his desire to party non-stop and his lofty DJing aspirations are the same thing that got him into them in the first place: his brother Daniel, who he literally bumps into in the street after thinking he had been dead for some time. Daniel has returned to Dublin from a spell in London; homeless, still struggling with a heroin addiction that ruined his once-bright prospects, but determined to do better. His complicated feelings aboutDaniel are one of the few things that can shake Jason and one of the few things he could be real about with ex-girlfriend Gemma (A Date for Mad Mary‘s Seana Kerslake), for the most part he pushes those difficult feelings away and focuses on taking more drugs, selling more drugs, or getting the chance to DJ from his record store owner/gig promoting boss, played by Mark O’Halloran. The slowly rekindling relationship with Daniel is the core of a film that otherwise drifts from party to party, not a surprise considering Kirwan and director Dave Tynan have adapted and expanded from Kirwan’s acclaimed 2014 stage play, a two man show entirely about the brothers.
Kirwan is a charismatic presence, naturally comfortable with his material, he’s funny, feckless, a chancer equally head-wrecking as heart-warming. But it’s with Lloyd Anderson that he’s at his best. Kirwan carries through a complex cocktail of emotions; hurt at the breakdown of his brother’s status as protector, sympathy for the situation that he’s found himself in, relief that he’s still alive and a deeply buried fear about going the same way if he takes the wrong turn, all vying for supremacy with whatever chemically-enhanced buzz he may have going on at the time. Mostly a stage actor best known for a stint on Love/Hate Ian Lloyd Anderson is fantastic in his first major film role, a very real and enthralling performance that gives Daniel plenty of dignity and avoids making him a cartoon ‘junkie’. Watching them remonstrate and reminisce, the understanding between the two actors, who worked together on the stage, is very clear.
The other supporting players are extremely capable, but the new material of Oldschool doesn’t give them quite the same weight. Some are given the thin characters of being, well, “characters”, the mix of mad bastards and tiresome mouths you might run into at a party, they might give you a laugh but you won’t remember them in the morning. Amongst the Dubs, Sarah Greene (of Rebellion, Penny Dreadful and plenty of plays) makes for a sound party mammy, wise and charming and worthy of being fleshed out more. The same can be said of Seana Kerslake as Gemma. Kerslake is a winner of a performer and gets across that feeling of history, and of regret (but not too much regret) of how things ended with Jason. But the character is more something for Jason to pine for and bounce dialogue off of than a person in her own right, which results in a promising pairing more or less petering out, which is occasionally frustrating when the film is so happy to wander.
Not that it’s worst thing that Oldschool is less tethered to plot. As an ode to the city, it’s an impressively visual leap for the material to the screen by Tynan and Kirwan, with an energy of its own. The film avoids cliched establishing shots for more intimate shooting locations, putting you alongside the characters. The way Jason and friends move from street to street keeps the film pacy and purposeful even when not much is happening. It’s uniquely gratifying experience for viewers from Dublin to hear someone talk about “the little park” and know exactly which one it’s going to be before we see it, seeing your bus route, work commute or people you know amongst the extras proves right Jason’s line that Dublin isn’t a city, it’s a village. There are novel-like qualities to the way the city is shot, experiencing Dublin on screen in this way can make up for some of the weaker points of the narrative, which perhaps doesn’t push its lead as far as it could, loses the core of its brotherly relationship at crucial moments and fails to provide its supporting players with material as rich as they’re able for. The film is balanced so perfectly in many areas, it’s hard not to feel that an all-time great could have been achieved if some parts worked a bit better. The narration here is a weak point, with plenty of overwritten, unnatural words that don’t feel necessary when what they’re trying to communicate is already being done more effectively by the visuals. If the effects of drugs on Jason and company, positive and negative, are coming through so clearly, references to “a thousand claws scrap[ing] every vertebrae” could be left out.
Yes Oldschool isn’t perfect. But sure look, it’s fun, it’s funny – with plenty of snappy, quotable lines and it can find the heart strings and pull on them just fine when it needs to. There are highs and lows, but it’s well worth-watching, the kind of story that’s told so well in Ireland: a balance of feel-good and gut-punch, that takes potentially broad subject matter and approaches it with an emotional honesty, without being too dry about it either. The film is in cinemas nationwide until this Thursday, and on limited release for a few weeks thereafter. It’s sure to live on in the always-watchable Irish canon alongside the likes of The Commitments or more recent favourites like Sing Street, but be sure to seek it out in cinema before then.(3.5 / 5)