Irish cinema is having a bit of a moment. On the one hand, you have the McDonagh brothers, Martin and John Michael, who’ve had big hits at home and abroad with their often violent dark comedies “In Bruges,” “The Guard” and “Calvary.” On another, you have John Carney, whose warm musical comedies “Once” and “Sing Street” have won hearts all over the shop. And then you have Lenny Abrahamson, a chameleon whose films “What Richard Did” and “Frank” led to a surprise Oscar nomination for “Room.”
Somewhere in the Venn-diagram crossover between these three is “The Young Offenders,” the debut feature from director Peter Foott, the creator of popular Irish hidden-camera show “The Fear.” It’s been something of a sleeper hit at home, and seems likely to do the same business elsewhere: It’s an enormously likable and mostly very funny comedy with charm, edge and a little artistry, too.
Based, the film claims, on a true story, our heroes are Conor MacSweeney (Alex Murphy) and Jock Murphy (Chris Walley), two 15-year-olds from Cork. They’re both skangers, wasters and general layabouts — the latter, who doubles as a bike thief, a little more than the former, who hero-worships him. Conor works with his mum (Hilary Rose), a fishmonger who had him as a teenager, while Jock has an abusive, alcoholic dad to deal with.
Their dreams and ambitions are minimal, but that changes when half a billion euros of cocaine wash up on the shores of Western Cork. The police are trying to retrieve it, but our heroes figure they can get there and grab one brick — worth about seven million euros a pop — without anyone noticing. So they set off on stolen bikes, unaware that Jock’s nemesis Sergeant Healy (Dominic MacHale), a dedicated policeman (or “shit Serpico,” as Conor describes him), is hot on their trail, having stuck a GPS tracer onto Jock’s bike.
From the opening credits — a bicycle chase set to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” — a few things become clear. For one, this is going to be a winningly high-energy, lo-fi kind of comedy. For another (given the associations of that track with “Pineapple Express”), it’s that Foott is clearly influenced by the wave of comedy of the last decade exemplified by Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow. “Superbad” is perhaps the main influence here, with the central friendship of the two boys reminiscent of Seth and Evan’s friendship there, and giving the film a sweet-natured spine.
There’s other stuff in the mix too: some ‘Ferris Bueller‘ to Healy’s dogged pursuit, some “Hot Fuzz” to some of the action, a hint of Taika Waititi in the way it all comes together. But the delight is that Foott’s film feels fresh despite the influences, a very Irish take on this kind of teen comedy.
And it really is funny from the start, mainly thanks to the supremely dim-witted performances given by the two newcomer leads, who are both excellent, and play beautifully off each other, too. It’s broad-ish stuff, but it’s smart dumb comedy, if you see what we mean, gently poking at its characters (there’s one amazing sight gag involving a jump at the ocean) but never quite condescending to them.
It looks pretty great too: Foott keeps things zipping along, and though the production value might not be the highest, he makes great use of the Irish landscape without making it feel like a commercial for the Irish Tourist Board. While the film’s rough around the edges in places, it feels admirably scrappy rather than anything else.
There are definitely some rough edges, though. The heart of the film is the relationship between the two boys, and it mostly works nicely, but there are a couple of moments where the narration tips into “Wonder Years” territory or the score gets a little over-sentimental and it over-eggs the pudding a bit. The very ending does what many good comedies do, and becomes a little more invested in its plot at the expense of the jokes. And one disabled character who enters the film late in the day feels like he’s the butt of jokes in a slightly queasy way.
But on the whole, the film feels like a joyous discovery, a genuinely crowd-pleasing comedy that seems to signal the arrival of a bunch of new talents. It’s a raucous, energetic and often hilarious film that’s likely to play in a big way with audiences wherever in the world it ends up. [B+]