'Dating Amber': Film Review

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films
An adorable look at friendship between two queer kids.

Fionn O'Shea and Lola Petticrew play a pair of closeted gay teens who pretend to date each other in this comedy-drama from Irish writer-director David Freyne.

For those of us old enough to remember, in 1995 the majority of teenagers in the developed world were almost as ignorant and bigoted as their parents about gender and sexual identity — or at least decidedly not the enlightened folk most Gen-Z kids seem to be these days. The endearing Irish comedy-drama Dating Amber harkens back to that time with a mix of wary nostalgia and downbeat affection by casting Fionn O'Shea and Lola Petticrew as two queer teenagers pretending to be a straight couple to get a little peace.

Although much jollier than writer-director David Freyne's previous feature, the now weirdly prescient zombie allegory The Cured, this sophomore effort has shade as well as light and prods tender psychic wounds by showing how self-hatred sprouts from truths not spoken. It makes for an honest, refreshing take on the travails of coming out, even if some of the peripheral characters are drawn with broad strokes. Moreover, it showcases the considerable talents of O'Shea and Petticrew beautifully, underscoring that both are names to keep an eye on for the future, along with Freyne himself.

In a semi-rural part of County Kildare, an exurban area only a moderately long bus ride from Dublin, 17-year-old Eddie (O'Shea, from TV series Normal People and the Russo Brothers' upcoming feature Cherry) lives with younger brother Jack (comically adept newcomer Evan O'Connor) and his not-so-happily married parents. His dad Ian (Barry Ward) is a high-ranking Irish Army officer at the Curragh Camp, a base and military college, while mother Hannah (Sharon Horgan, once again playing a military wife after her turn in Military Wives) looks after the home.

Sensing a weak spot ripe for needling, Eddie's "friends" at school, particularly loutish Kev (Ian O'Reilly), tease thin, sensitive Eddie about being gay because he's never had a girlfriend. Their taunts lead him to pretend he fancies crimped-hair gum-chewer Tracey (Emma Willis), who doesn't mind getting off with a guy who looks "like that fella from Blur." After a diplomatic negotiation through third parties, the two engage in an exceedingly awkward make-out session behind the school, which Eddie hopes will quell any questions about his heterosexuality — although he is, as it happens, gay.

One person who isn't fooled by this charade is Amber (Petticrew, A Bump Along the Way), a tough-talking, rough-mannered classmate of Eddie's with a multicolored messy bob who gets teased regularly by the others for being a "lezzer" (lesbian). Although Amber can parry back as good as she gets, as with Eddie, the name-calling stings her because she knows that she does indeed prefer girls to boys. Running a lucrative side hustle renting out mobile homes by the hour to teens looking for somewhere to have sex at the caravan park her mother Jill (Simone Kirby) runs, Amber has saved up a hefty pile of cash. Eventually, she plans to use it to escape to London, where she can come out fully, go to punk gigs and start a music "zine." (Younger readers aren't like to have heard of such things, but zines were self-published magazines, the equivalent of social media at the time except on stapled bits of paper and with longer chunks of prose.)

Seeing an opportunity to get the others off both their backs, Amber comes out to Eddie, points out that she's correctly guessed he's gay and proposes they pretend to be dating each other. Although he tries to deny he's anything other than a macho-macho man in the making, Eddie agrees that this arrangement would be preferable to making out with the likes of Tracey and the other girls. Over time, Eddie and Amber develop a real friendship and profound affection for each other, illustrated through an assortment of brisk comic vignettes and montage sequences showing them cuddling platonically like puppies, backed by a pretty, yearning original score by Hugh Drumm and Stephen Rennicks.

On a forbidden, drink-fuelled jaunt to Dublin together, the two of them happen on a gay bar. Venturing inside, Eddie is mesmerized by the sight of a drag queen lip-syncing to Brenda Lee who calls him "baby gay," while Amber meets a friendly university student named Sarah (Lauryn Canny), who invites her to an upcoming event. This encounter with out people and culture incrementally shifts something in both of the teens, giving Amber the push she needs to explore her sexuality more openly. However, for Eddie, who is supposed to be training to join the army just like his dad once he passes his cadet training, the thought of coming out is panic-inducing. Eventually, he turns on Amber publicly, calling her a "dyke" after they performatively split up. It's a sundering that's both fake (because they were never a "real" couple) and devastating (because on another level, in a way, they were).

In a director's statement, Freyne notes that the story is strongly autobiographical, although he doesn't get into any specifics about whether there was a real Amber character in his own teenage years. Still, there are plenty of funny, bizarre details along the way, like a sex talk from a nun, that feel too outlandish to be anything other than drawn from real life.

Be it fiction or memoir, his nimbly written screenplay keeps time perfectly with the obligatory beats for a good coming-of-age story. What's more, Freyne draws out fizzy, gutsy performances from his two leads, who have a genuine, charming chemistry. The authenticity of their performances is perhaps slightly out of tune with the broad caricatures on display elsewhere, such as the mean classmates, but it's ultimately forgivable given how winning the film is overall.

Distribution: Samuel Goldwyn FIlms
Cast: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Sharon Horgan, Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Evan O'Connor, Ian O'Reilly, Emma Willis, Anastasia Blake, Lauryn Canny, Shaun Dunne, Adam Carolan, Peter Campion, Ally Ni Chiarain
Production: A Fis Eireann/Screen Ireland presentation in association with Altitude Film Entertainment, The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Radio Teilifis Eireann, in coproduction with Wrong Men, Voo/BETV of an Atomic 80 production
Director/screenwriter: David Freyne
Producers: Rachael O'Kane, John Keville
Co-Producer: Benoit Roland
Executive producers: Dearbhla Regan, David Freyne, Rory Dungan, Will Clarke, Andy Mayson, Mike Runagall
Director of photography: Ruairi O'Brien
Production designer: Emma Lowney
Costume designer: Joan O'Clery
Editor: Joe Sawyer
Music: Hugh Drumm, Stephen Rennicks
Music supervisors: Dina Coughlan, Rory McPartland
Casting: Louise Kiely
Sales: Altitude Film Sales

No rating; 92 minutes