'The Quiet Girl' Is One of the Most Heartbreaking Movies in Ages (2024)

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MOVIE REVIEW

Ireland’s nominee for Best International Feature should, in a just world, be up for Best Picture. Do yourself a favor and see it as soon as you can

The girl is named Cáit. She’s 12 years old, doesn’t like attention, stays hidden and silent when she can. Living in the rural Irish countryside in the early 1980s, she’s the youngest of a brood belonging to parents that seem one perpetually short fuse away from exploding. Or rather, she was the youngest — her Ma is six months pregnant. As for her Da, he’s a largely absent, mostly glowering presence capable of inspiring a dread-inducing hush into the household upon entering. Even when he brings Cáit with him to a pub, he’s still just an ominous figure to her, yet another adult downing pints and yet another incentive to be neither seen nor heard.

You get to know this muted youngster over the course of The Quiet Girl, the debut fiction feature from writer-director Colm Bairéad and Ireland’s nominee for Best International Feature at this year’s Oscars. (Most of the dialogue is in Gaeilge, hence the “international feature” nod. In a just world, it would be up for a dozen other categories as well, but why look an award-season gift horse in the mouth?) But for the movie’s first third or so, Cáit is a cypher, someone who keeps her emotions locked away and would disappear entirely if she could. Home is a nightmare. School is worse. Precious few expositional details are given, but there’s enough telltale signs that life is rough for this kid.

Silence often speaks volumes, of course, and as played by Catherine Clinch, Cáit barely needs to say anything to communicate that she’s a walking, if barely talking, cry for help. This is one of those performances where every tiny shift, every movement of her eyes, every tensing up of her posture and wary glance tells you everything you needs to know. Even when Bairéad purposefully keeps us from seeing his heroine’s face for most of The Quiet Girl’s opening prologue, you get the sense that the youngster is wounded beyond her years. “She says as much as she needs to say,” another character notes in defense of Cáit, and it’s to Clinch’s credit that the statement doubles as a description of her portrayal as well. The show-don’t-tell approach may be a necessity (see title) and is completely in line with the source material, Claire Keegan’s 2010 novella Foster, but what she’s doing complements the filmmaking and the storytelling perfectly. It’s a transparent take on someone trying to stay alert and shield themselves simultaneously. (Between Clinch’s work here and what Park Ji-min accomplishes in Return to Seoul, another 2022 holdover that’s just now getting a belated theatrical run, it’s already a great year for first-time actors running laps around veteran thespians.)

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The whiff of economic hardship, institutional despair and free-floating misery, the kind so often associated with a certain strain of Irish literature and memoirs, hovers over the proceedings before the movie slightly pivots. Because Cáit’s parents can’t be bothered with her, they decide to send her away for the summer. Her seasonal guardians will be an older couple, Eibhlín (Carrie Crawley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett), who live on a farm; the fact that the woman may be kin is casually mentioned, though it’s hard to tell whether that’s a white lie or not. She’s unceremoniously dropped off, and you start to wonder whether this vulnerable child has officially exited the frying pan and entered a raging, four-alarm fire. The woman seems a little too present and available at first. The man couldn’t be more distant or aloof.

Then the movie begins to gently guide us through their situation as well. “There are no secrets in this house,” Eibhlín tells their young ward. But there has been tragedy, and a lot of emotional rawness and grief have passed through those halls. Bairéad doesn’t switch up his stylistic tics — this is a movie that loves framing characters between tight doorways and through windows; the fact that he’s shooting in a square, Academy aspect ratio only heightens the feeling that everything is a trap — yet he does relax the tone of the film. And slowly, what had felt like a new environment filled with uncertainty and instability begins to give way to something else. Cáit and Seán bond as she helps with chores, and he begins timing her sprints to and from the mailbox down the path. Eibhlín takes her dress shopping. The girl begins to bloom in an environment characterized by nurturing instead of toxic neglect. She even speaks more.

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'The Quiet Girl' Is One of the Most Heartbreaking Movies in Ages (1)

There is a sense that a clock is ticking somewhere, and this feeling of familial love is regrettably finite. The Quiet Girl knows this, and it knows that you know this. How it gets to where this story needs to end, however, is what separates it from every other melodrama that’s used the whole notion of angelic surrogate parents as a way of wringing your tear ducts dry. By the time we get to the climax, we can see that these three have changed, even if the notion of a permanent reset becomes a pipe dream. It’s also not giving anything away to say that it ends on a display of total and utter grace that’s also devastating, and may require theaters to thoroughly waterproof their floors before showings.

Having already swept Ireland’s equivalent of the Academy Awards and won festival accolades, not to mention setting both its young star and its director up for stellar careers should they want them, the film’s appearance among this year’s Oscar contenders feels more like a victory lap than an endgame. One more statue would up its profile, but that’s almost irrelevant. What matters is that The Quiet Girl is, quite simply, a genuine work of art by a genuinely empathetic artist, and one of the single most moving, heartfelt, and heartbreaking movies from any country in the last decade. That only sounds like hyperbole until you see it. After that, the sentence reads as a huge understatement.

'The Quiet Girl' Is One of the Most Heartbreaking Movies in Ages (2024)
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