So too does Wren Boys in its opening scene, cross-cutting the sage soundings of Lalor Roddy’s priest’s sermon with images of the rite-of-passage bird hunt from his own boyhood days that lends the film its title. Lighton’s 16mm grain casts this violent rite with an edge of gritty retrospection; Roddy’s haggard face and measured voice give the sense of a man aware, all too late, of the social forces that shaped him. And just as his clerical collar and his car’s rosary beads reinforce the idea of an Ireland defined by Catholic heritage—a concern Boy Saint shares in its mantelpiece icons—the traditions of masculinity abound in the near-parody prolificacy of his nephew’s swearing and the posters of GAA athletes we see plastered on the walls.
They’re set, in Wren Boys, beside similar scenes of boxing triumphalism, much like the imagery that adorns a barber shop in Boy Saint, as we see visualised the idols in the image of which these youths are literally to be sculpted. Speers and Lighton are equally adept at invoking unsaid the establishment of masculine idylls from an early age; indeed, the former’s scenes of young men competing at pull-ups in a decaying building speak to the inevitable manifestation of such an upbringing in performative physicality. There’s a neat symmetry between a shot of the curtain-covered stare of a nosy neighbour in Wren Boys and Boy Saint’s repeated close-ups of eyes as these kids examine their own and each other’s bodies: when an actor is cast among his own audience, can the performance ever really end?
It can, Wren Boys suggests, if we’re willing to acknowledge its underlying theatricality and progress beyond the past in which it threatens to trap us. Lighton’s great success here is in inveigling complex ideas of a society in flux in familiar genre trappings: as his clever cutting builds sonic bridges to tie his story’s strands together, so too does the accomplished establishment of prison and road movie tropes prepare the ground for a terrific rug-pulling of subverted expectations, founded on the traditional
assumptions that have underwritten both these genres and Irish identity. The result is a remarkable comic coup that succeeds in seriously addressing the ugly prejudices dredged up in recent national conversations while conveying the levity of liberation from their erstwhile unspoken predominance.
But where Wren Boys delights in deploying a more pluralist present toward pleasures hard-won, Boy Saint is perhaps more measured in its reticent re-imagining of a past we may no longer be doomed to repeat. Michael McElhatton’s voiceover recording of LaBerge’s verse only deepens its emotive intensity:
…Lightning fluttering between two boys
who want to be in a basement in a town
they dreamt up. Lightning in cities and towns
I’ve never been to, never heard of. I am
positive. I am not…
Such lines, slowly rendered, suggest possibilities of passion explicitly denied in the preordained scope of homosocial interaction; there’s an insatiable irony between the erotic charge of Speers’ shots of wrestling bodies and the ridiculed intimacy of arms teasingly draped around shoulders, as though the bodies of boys and men must only ever meet in destructive ends, any other contact unimaginable.
With its whispered words, choral score, and almost oneiric sensibility, Boy Saint posits a retrospective regret in viewing the past that’s positively Malickian. Yet where the distinct personas of The Tree of Life,
say, tether that perspective to personal particularity, Boy Saint feels broader in its conception of boyhood and informed by a happier hindsight, pitched from a place in the present that knows innately its vision of the past truly is that. And specifically posed in that same Irish context of waning prejudice to which Wren Boys too speaks, it’s a respectful rendition of queer experience that recognises the pain of remembering an upbringing that regarded your inclinations as fundamentally suspect, all the while celebrating the sense of a future potent with the potential to be free of that.
Both these films, then, are remarkable for their use of queerness not as an issue for exploration only in its own right, but as a lens through which to view a society coming to terms with itself and its ills, as a perspective that enables interrogations of the culture that fostered these prejudices and more. They represent, fundamentally, queer narratives not as a novel niche at the margins of Irish cinema, but as a possible locus of deeper understanding, an entry point to examinations of broader themes of prescribed gender roles and prohibitive social structures. And their triumph at the Fleadh, crucially, is welcome indication of the potential for these films and more like them to fulfil that function. “Like trees struck by lightning,” goes one of LaBerge’s last lines, “we aren’t visible until we’re on fire.” In the queer stories of Wren Boys and Boy Saint, we may have the movies to set Irish cinema alight.
20 CinÉireann / Issue 9