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Statistics and news headlines about Dublin’s homelessness problem are transmuted into effective topical drama in Rosie, a quietly, gradually heartbreaking portrait of regular people coping with a desperate situation, written by Roddy Doyle (The Van, The Commitments) and directed by Paddy Breathnach (I Went Down, Viva). Anchored by a finely grained, beautifully modulated performance from Sarah Greene as the title character, a mother effectively living out of her car while she struggles to find temporary accommodation each night for herself, partner and four kids, the film is an empathy generator, an antidote to compassion fatigue. Reminiscent of similarly themed stories from the Dardenne brothers and Ken Loach, but in a lower key than the first and less melodramatic than much of the second’s work, this simple, naturalistic work is likely to find a home at festivals after its Toronto premiere before retirement to home entertainment platforms.
Doyle’s screenplay doesn’t go in for big political grandstanding, to its credit, but it’s hard not to watch this film and wonder why the system is so broken in a country whose economic prosperity has grown exponentially over the last 20 years. And yet Rosie Davis (Greene), her partner John Paul Brady (Moe Dunford) and their kids – 13-year-old Kayleigh (Ellie O’Halloran, 8-year-old Millie (Ruby Dunne), 6-year-old Alfie (Darragh McKenzie) and wee 4-year-old Madison (Molly McCann) — are hardly benefitting just now from the growth that turned Dublin into one of the boomtowns of Europe.
Although working-class, these are not the kind of people who rely on benefits from the state. Devoted dad John Paul washes dishes in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant while Rosie is a full-time mum. But in a market where housing prices and rents have risen to a level they simply can’t afford, the family found they literally had nowhere to go when their landlord decided to sell the house in which they were living.
In the 36-hour time frame of the film, the decampment has already happened and most of their possessions are parked with patient friends and relatives while they keep the absolute essentials – spare clothes; toiletries; Madison’s beloved toy rabbit, Peachy, who is practically a seventh member of the family — in the car. Rosie spends each day, as soon as the eldest three are at school, trying to find somewhere to sleep for the coming night, working off a list of hotels provided to her by the city. With a patient, nearly affectless voice, the kind you could imagine she used once to order pizza or enquire about a classified ad, she calls each number on the list to see if they have a “family room” that will be paid for by the local authority.
Unfortunately, there’s a chronic shortage of such rooms. As the hours slip by and Rosie starts running out of numbers to call and credit for her pay-as-you-go cellphone, new crises turn up the stress. Precocious, watchful Millie has been bullied at school. Angry teenager Kayleigh is a no-show when Rosie goes to pick her up from school, and John Paul risks losing his job if he leaves work to come and help look for her.
Wisely avoiding making the characters into modern martyrs at the mercy of bureaucracy, Doyle suggests that the situation is even more complicated than it looks at first. Rosie has a mother (Pom Boyd) with a relatively large house, one that might even accommodate the whole family. But Rosie and her mum fell out some time ago, seemingly over abuse meted out by Rosie’s late father, and mum won’t let her back until she takes back her accusations. And so the story becomes not just one about bad luck and hard times, but also about personal ethics as well.
Even though the situation is grim and sometimes it seems like the walls of the car are getting smaller in every claustrophobic scene as the sun sinks low, the familial warmth of the performances creates a kind of hearth out of the dashboard lights and reflected blue glow from the family cellphones. Stephen Rennicks’ score is subtle and very sparingly deployed, and the overlapping dialogue and ambient noise create a strong naturalism. Breathnach has charmed gutsy, authentic turns from the kids in particular, and while it may be unfair to pick a favorite, Dunne stands out as an actor who could go places if that’s what she wants.
Production: A Screen Ireland, Broadcasting Authority of Ireland presentation of an Element Pictures production
Cast: Sarah Greene, Molly McCann, Darragh McKenzie, Ruby Dunne, Ellie O’Halloran, Moe Dunford, Pom Boyd, Dervhle Crotty, Andrei Tumdeanu, Alexandra Didilescu, Nikoleta Simanaityte
Director: Paddy Breathnach
Screenwriters: Roddy Doyle
Producers: Emma Norton, Rory Gilmartin, Juliette Bonass
Executive producers: Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Roddy Doyle, Dearbhla Regan
Director of photography: Cathal Watters
Production designer: Mark Kelly
Costume designer: Louise Stanton
Editor: Una Ni Dhonghaile
Music: Stephen Rennicks
Casting: Louise Kiely
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
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