By Zoe Kurland.
The film is redeemed by its overall heart, precious bouts of whimsy, and, above all, the care given to moments of quiet when the battle recedes into the background.”
The year is 1995, and a group of Irish soldiers (the 57th battalion, to be exact) has just returned home to Ireland from a six-month tour in Lebanon. History tells us that this was a peacekeeping mission; from 1978 to 2001, Irish troops were sent to Lebanon to oversee the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces, and to prevent fighting between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel. However, these troops have returned home to find a war of a different nature: the 1995 divorce referendum is up for a vote, and its passing would legalize divorce in Ireland. Newspapers paint a picture of a nation divided: activists pass out fliers reading “VOTE NO, YOU WILL PAY” and talking heads squabble on TV. A catholic church mouthpiece warns viewers “if you vote yes for divorce, you’re rejecting the teachings of Christ.” From the outset, we get the idea that Ireland is a nation of pious peacekeepers, both at home and abroad.
These conflicts serve as the poignant backdrop for David Freyne’s latest film, Dating Amber, the story of two closeted gay teenagers, Eddie and Amber, who pretend to date to shut down the merciless teasing they face in school. It seems important to mention this historical context, as Eddie and Amber’s decision to be beards for one another is essentially a peace-keeping mission of their own, a bid to hold down the fort long enough in their small town of County Kildare to make it to the next part of their lives. When we first meet Eddie (an excellent Fionn O’Shea), he is quite literally on a precipice, failing to do a chin-up on a childhood swing set in his backyard. Though Eddie trains near constantly for the military life he desires, as a scrawny adolescent, he can’t quite get a handle on it. But we swiftly learn that Eddie is a product of his culture, as everyone in County Kildare seems to be in training. While biking to school, an oblivious Eddie rides right through a weapons training zone. Soldiers run after him waving their arms, shouting “Stop! It’s live ammo, you’re gonna die!” metaphorically underscoring Eddie’s idealism and ignorance of the dangers that await him in the military. After surviving the gunfire, Eddie runs straight into the open fire of the boys at school who mock him for his lack of interest in girls, visibly wounding him. Even in these various states of training, when life might not feel completely realized, the ammo is live and has the ability to inflict great pain.
Amber (the fabulously angsty Lola Petticrew), with her technicolor hair and perma-scowl, attracts similar ire and attention from her classmates, though she’s much better at sloughing it off than Eddie. Seeing an opportunity, she approaches Eddie with a plan to date. On their first outing, they sit at a restaurant surrounded by their schoolmates. Gossipy whispers whizz past them like bullets; noting the snarky attention, Amber grabs Eddie’s hand and the voices quiet. One cannot understate the importance of this newfound silence. Without having to endure a constant word-assault, Eddie and Amber begin to discover themselves and forge a powerful platonic love, one in which they dance, read, drink and laugh, envisioning a life beyond County Kildare with limbs intertwined. There is an ease to Eddie and Amber’s love, a physical chemistry that flies in the face of the rigid relationships around them, and, ironically, makes their faux romance seem more authentic to anyone watching.
Despite recent advancements, gay characters in film and television tend to be relegated to the role of best friend or mired in heavy tragedy. Freyne cheekily subverts this trope, as Dating Amber centers around a pair of gay best friends who act as the eye of the storm in their odd and frenetic world. Though it breaks new ground in terms of representation (google “films about beards” and you’ll only find a litany of listicles on notable facial hair), Dating Amber borrows aesthetically from shows like Sex Education, The End of The F*cking World, and the nostalgia-machine Stranger Things, taking the poppy aesthetics of the 80s and 90s, which we now have enough distance from to romanticize, and mingling them with a present-day fluency in theories of sexuality, gender, and feminism. This choice produces moments of campy delight, like a grainy sex education video starring a nun who wags her finger, warning students that Jesus is watching their every move in the bedroom. Yet the kids seem to know better, or at least have access to tools that can free them; “have you read Simone de Beauvoir?” Amber asks a bemused Eddie. We later see him reading The Second Sex in a cemetery, a Wes Anderson-like moment of both gravity and levity.
This juxtaposition of the retro and the woke creates a kind of idyllic liminality, however, Freyne only half-lingers in this escapism. Amber may have aspirations of opening “an anarchist bookshop with franchise potential” in the city, but Eddie, despite Amber’s influence,still wants to go to war. “I believe that the fire of war turns one into a man,” he says with resolve. Eddie covers his bedroom walls with pinup-like posters of soldiers, and his desk is covered, equal parts hilariously and precariously, with upright bullets of varying sizes, which, if one squints, look scarcely different than a hearty collection of dildoes. Beyond the obvious humor in this, the darker truth seems to be that Amber wants to survive secondary school to live her life, while Eddie wants to survive secondary school to risk his. Rather than being inspirational, Eddie’s Rockyesque training montages build a kind of bleak tension; as a viewer, you don’t want Eddie to get built, you want him to wake up.
On a clandestine trip to Dublin, Eddie and Amber stumble into a bar where a drag queen sings Brenda Lee’s “You Can Depend on Me.” Freyne attributes the bar, and Dublin at large, with a kind of mythic quality; here in the big city, the real world, people have the ability to be themselves (and unlike in County Kildare, no one wears fatigues out and about). Amidst all of the Catholic posturing throughout the film, the drag queen, in her voluminous golden wig and sequined dress is the most godlike presence we see. She blurs and shimmers beneath Eddie’s drunken gaze, and Freyne tunes into the intimate sounds we might not normally hear– the drag queen’s breathy voice, her whispers beneath the song lyrics, the truth beneath the performance. Eddie appears, at last, delivered, as though he’s found something to believe in.
At a certain point, Eddie and Amber begin to diverge; Amber has trouble continuing with what she understands as a performance, but Eddie sinks deeper into denial. Their twin storylines play out well enough, though the tale wraps up a bit hastily with more than one subplot left in the balance. Regardless of whatever fumbling occurs in the latter half, the film is redeemed by its overall heart, precious bouts of whimsy, and, above all, the care given to moments of quiet when the battle recedes into the background and Eddie and Amber can simply be.
Zoe Kurland is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in English from Columbia University. Her writing appears in Bright Lights Film Journal, COUNTERCLOCK Journal, The Nonconformist, and more.