'I Used to Live Here': Film Review

Terrific young leads save this teen suicide drama from worthy glumness

Prize-winning Irish docudrama examines the aftershocks of a neighborhood tragedy on vulnerable Dublin youths.

Teenage suicide stories have a long cinematic pedigree, typically viewed through a filter of romantic myth (The Virgin Suicides) or gory comedy (Heathers). But documentary-maker Frank Berry has opted instead for stark social realism, basing his debut dramatic feature on an Irish Times article about the ripple effects of youth suicide on wider communities. Working with a mostly non-professional cast of local people in Killinarden in West Dublin, Berry has created a small but quietly devastating drama about the potentially lethal combined effects of personal tragedy, poverty and limited life choices.

Originally intended as a documentary, I Used to Live Here is inescapably somber in mood. But Berry's treatment is tender and compassionate, while strong performances by his two young leads are a real selling point. After winning awards domestically, the film is currently on theatrical release in Britain and Ireland. Though the thick Dublin accents may prove an obstacle in some English-speaking territories, the universal theme and serious intent should interest festivals and niche distributors.

Amy (Jordanne Jones) is a emotionally brittle 13-year-old living on an impoverished housing estate on the fringes of Dublin with her recently widowed father, Raymond (James Kelly). One of her few friends is Dylan (Dafhyd Flynn), a solitary younger boy who is regularly bullied by neighborhood gangs. Life is stressful enough for both Amy and Dylan, but when a local youth commits suicide by jumping from a road bridge, the shock waves seem to hit them harder then most.

During the same week, Amy also has to cope with Raymond's ex-girlfriend Dina (Alicja Ayres) moving into the family home with the year-old half-brother that she never even knew existed, and crushing rejection after a failed romantic date in Dublin city center. With her own mother's death exerting an unspoken but ever-present gravitational force, Amy begins to consider suicide as a potential solution to all her problems.

The setting of I Used To Live Here recalls the hard-scrabble working-class Dublin familiar from Roddy Doyle adaptations like The Commitments or The Snapper, but without their affirmative comic warmth. The gritty social critiques of Ken Loach or Andrea Arnold make better parallels, though Berry himself cites Romanian New Wave figurehead Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) as a key influence, which makes sense. Both directors immerse themselves in the private angst of their teenage heroines using intense facial close-ups and long single-shot scenes.

Though it was made in conjunction with community youth workers and mental health experts, I Used To Live Here does not feel too much like a worthy, issue-driven movie. Less directly about suicide than about the scary emotional intensity of adolescence, especially in the claustrophobic context of poor communities, Berry's film is still full of tiny poetic details, from Daragh O'Toole's lyrical score to the heartbreakingly pathetic graffiti tributes that teenagers scratch into sidewalks to commemorate a fallen comrade they barely knew.

The story also feels a little unfocused and clumsily paced in places. The director's inexperience, like that of his unschooled cast, sometimes shows through. But his trump cards are Jones and Flynn, who both give riveting, naturalistic, internalized performances. Both clearly have the raw material for future screen careers. Jones is especially magnetic as a sulky teen queen, affecting supreme indifference on the surface while screaming inside. Berry wisely avoids tear-jerking melodrama, ending on a cautiously hopeful note, but with potential tragedy lurking just out of shot.

Production company: Write Direction Films
Cast: Jordanne Jones, Dafhyd Flynn, James Kelly, Ross Geraghty, Nikita Rowley, Alicja Ayres
Director, screenwriter, editor: Frank Berry
Cinematographer: Colm Mullen
Producers: Frank Berry, Donna Eperon
Music: Daragh O'Tooler
Assistant Director: Clare Flood
Sales company: Write Direction Films

Rated 15A (U.K. and Ireland), 82 minutes

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