The Quiet Girl (now on Hulu) was the first-ever Irish film nominated for the Best International Feature Film Oscar; it and another truly exceptional film, Jerzy Skolimowski’s donkey parable EO, both lost the award to All Quiet on the Western Front, which is a perfectly fine movie until you compare it to these two competitors. Shot primarily in Gaelic, The Quiet Girl is the debut feature from writer-director Colm Bairead, who adapted Claire Keegan’s short story Foster, about a troubled girl whose family sends her to live on a cousin’s farm for a summer. It’s one of those movies that say more when nothing is being said, and when something’s being said, it cuts right to the quick – and sometimes breaks your damn heart.
The Gist: Cait (Catherine Clinch) lies in the tall grass, hiding, and you get the sense she prefers not to be seen. At home, she looks upon the stain on her mattress with shame, as if she’s been scolded and teased countless times for it. She’s among a bevy of children living in a dimly lit, cramped, dirty home. She has older sisters and a young sibling who wails in a high chair to no response, a scene that doesn’t heed well for a baby yet to be born. Their mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) seems, in a word, inattentive. Cait sits silent in a corner of the pub while her father (Michael Patric) drinks; we’ll later learn he gambles, losing with apparent regularity. School – well, it’s torture. It’s where she reads much more slowly than her classmates, and where she sits alone with little or no lunch, and when she steals a cup of milk from an unaccompanied thermos, other children bump her desk so it spills in her lap. At recess, when the bell rings and the kids scamper back to class, she bolts across the field and over the fence.
One night Cait overhears her parents talking about her mother’s “people,” and soon thereafter her father puts her in the car and drives three hours to unceremoniously drop her off at a dairy farm owned and run by Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley), a cousin of Cait’s mother, and Sean (Andrew Bennett). They’re a rapidly graying couple whose spacious home is filled with natural light and gentle color, but otherwise feels a bit empty. Cait’s father warns Eibhlin and Sean that she’ll eat them out of house and home, and he tells Cait, “Try not to fall into the fire, you.” He leaves, and the lack of hug or kind word as goodbye? It’s telling, a portrait painted of near-tragic neglect.
Eibhlin’s soft features and warm gaze look Cait up and down, noting her grubby dress and skin without judgment, but some pity. She takes Cait upstairs and runs a hot bath and gently, so gently washes the girl. Cait has nothing else to wear so Eibhlin finds some boy’s clothes in a closet and cuffs the sleeves and pants. She takes the girl down to the well to drink some cool, pure water. She counts the strokes as she brushes Cait’s hair. Cait doesn’t say much, and there’s no pressure on her to talk. “There are no secrets in this house,” Eibhlin says with warmth, openness, a loving spirit.
Sean is relatively chilly in his demeanor. We worry for a moment or two; maybe he’s not keen on taking in a child they barely know (and maybe there’s a reason for that). One morning, Eibhlin leaves to help a friend’s ailing father. Cait sits silent at the breakfast table. Sean stands in the kitchen in his work coveralls eating a snack and as he walks out of the room he wordlessly leaves something on the table for Cait. It’s a cookie. Soon Cait will follow him across the grounds to the barns and pick up a broom to help. He feeds a calf by bottle and she peppers him with the questions of a child robust with curiosity, until he hands her the bottle to finish the job. They settle into routines, with Cait assisting Eibhlin with cooking and cleaning, and Cait helping Sean with the cattle and milking machines. One morning Sean tells Cait that he bets she can run fast on those long legs. He’ll time her out to the mailbox and back. She does it again, and again, and gets faster and faster every time.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The Quiet Girl is, roughly, a cross between life in rural Ireland a la The Banshees of Inisherin and Leave No Trace, with Clinch’s performance recalling Thomasin McKenzie’s moving and thoughtful portrayal of a girl hemmed in by her paternal situation.
Performance Worth Watching: Crowley, refined and astute, and Bennett, wounded and tender, communicate so much about their characters while saying so little. And Clinch? She’s a wonder, her character carrying a psychological burden as all children do – without knowing quite what it is and therefore not capable of understanding it, but nevertheless feeling its weight so intently.
Memorable Dialogue: Sean firmly defends Cait’s reticence to speak much: “She says as much as she needs to say.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: The Quiet Girl is a heartbreaker, from its opening shot illustrating Cait’s emotional isolation, to its final, faint, whispered moment. Bairead’s direction is exquisite, a finely tuned synthesis of clear-eyed realism and visual poetry that foregoes melodrama for a depiction of Cait and Sean and Eibhlin’s lives, leavened as they are by simple joys and crippling tragedies. Bairead emphasizes the former once Cait finds a safe place to simply be; we don’t see the latter, but there’s an air to the film implicating dangers past, present and future. Childhood innocence is ever so fragile, and Bairead handles it ever so delicately, like a treasured glass ornament.
Bairead’s economical storytelling strips away all pretense and clings tightly to Cait’s point of view. Sometimes, he pauses to focus on a minute detail of a scene – water trickling through a drain, the locomotives on wallpaper in a child’s bedroom – just long enough so we notice it, and can very briefly ponder his intent, before he cuts away. Other filmmakers might linger on such moments of uncomplicated beauty, the textures in life’s tapestry, but every shot comprising the artfully honed rhythm of Bairead’s narrative feels deliberately tailored to allow complex ideas to murmur quietly beneath what appears to be a simple observation of setting. There are no heavy hands here, from the thoughtful and poignant work of the cast to the dramatic beats of the story; it stirs up base questions about nature and nurture as it shows us the potency of both love and indifference, and asks pointedly where Cait – and possibly any of us – truly belongs. And then it leaves us staring at our bleeding hearts, torn out and placed in our open hands.
Our Call: The Quiet Girl deserved that Oscar. Don’t let it slip by. STREAM IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.