Dollhouse: Berlin Film Review

The Factory
The freewheeling third feature from the daughter of Jim Sheridan is an Irish Red Bull cocktail with a heavy splash of bitters.

A home-invasion scenario in which one of the intruders is actually busting in on her own life, Kirsten Sheridan's semi-improvised drama is a viscerally charged take on youthful nihilism.

BERLIN -- After dealing with the commercial dictates of a comparably big-budget production on her 2007 sophomore feature, August Rush, Kirsten Sheridan set out to make a less constrained, more intimate film with Dollhouse. But claustrophobic is a better word than intimate to describe this manic all-night odyssey with representatives of Ireland’s unanchored youth. High on dangerous energy and wielding an expertly sustained sense of menace primed to explode, the trippy film ultimately falls short on psychological complexity. Yet it’s impossible to look away.

The filmmaker was co-screenwriter of her father Jim Sheridan’s In America. But this first film on which she covers writing and directing duties has more in common with her 2001 feature debut, Disco Pigs. Adapted by Enda Walsh from his play, that film also depicted a pressure-cooker world of disenfranchised teens simmering with violence.

Anger, despair and insecurity course through the veins of the late-adolescents at the center of this variation on a home-invasion scenario. The twist, revealed early on, is that one of the intruders, Jeannie (Seana Kerslake), actually lived in the posh house on the coast near Dublin until she went AWOL roughly a year earlier.

Working from a rudimentary treatment using structured improvisation and shooting sequentially with script pages supplied piecemeal to the actors, Sheridan creates an environment of precarious euphoria. It keeps threatening to turn ugly, and then regularly bounces off like a pinball in new directions. The film’s constant mood swings are as riveting as they are unsettling but grounded in believably volatile behavior. Only late in the action does an out-of-left-field development stretch plausibility.

The premise is simple. The group breaks into an elegant modern house while the owners are away. From their awed hesitance upon entering, as well as from their trashy appearance, it’s clear these kids are intimidated by the unfamiliar comforts of wealth. But Sheridan deftly captures the tribal desire for chaos and destruction kicking in. Shane (Shane Curry) breaks into a crazed dance to Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” on the sound system while Eanna (Johnny Ward), Darren (Ciaran McCabe) and Denise (Kate Stanley Brennan) raid the bar, the pantry and the medicine cabinet.

Sheridan shows considerable skill at planting a visceral charge that lets up only in the intended interludes of quiet that punctuate the raucous night. And while the inevitable mini camcorder has become far too ubiquitous as a device to convey in-your-face agitation, its use here is moderate.

Jeannie at first seems merely to be exploring upstairs away from the pack, set up by the writer-director as the sensitive one in the group. But her reappearance, made over in a fancy red dress, coincides with Denise’s discovery that she’s featured in the family photos.

The questions that surface out of the others’ stunned silence continue throughout the night. Why did she bring them there? Why did she leave? Jeannie answers with a nervous smile and little concrete information, her caginess seeming like an invitation to hostile reaction. More questions arise when Robbie (Jack Reynor), the squeaky-clean boy next door, arrives to investigate the noise, his behavior toward Jeannie indicating a past romance. He sticks around, and the group dynamic keeps mutating.

As booze and drugs are consumed and the wreckage extends, truth games touch on hidden vulnerabilities, often hinting at deeper damage. But despite a stupefying reveal near the end, Sheridan lets Jeannie remain an enigma.

The unrelenting unease and escalating strangeness of Dollhouse make this a punishing feelbad movie. So it’s unsatisfying to come away with only standard impressions of rich-girl dysfunction or of young people bristling against a world with no place for them. At times the film also becomes tiresomely literal, notably when Jeannie turns her upbringing on its head, enlisting help from the others to glue, nail and bolt the contents of her bedroom to the ceiling.

But if on emotional levels Dollhouse doesn’t quite deliver, the control of atmosphere and tension is impressive, as is the craft employed to create a scarily physical experience. And Sheridan gets strong work out of the cast, with each of the six main actors etching a distinct, layered character. Howie B.’s music, Colin Downey’s jittery camerawork and Sheridan’s nimble editing all are vital contributions to this portrait of generational freefall.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)

Cast: Seana Kerslake, Johnny Ward, Kate Stanley Brennan, Shane Curry, Ciaran McCabe, Jack Reynor, Deirdre O’Kane, Peter Gowen, Conor Neary

Production companies: The Factory, Lightstream Pictures, Irish Film Board

Director-screenwriter: Kirsten Sheridan

Producer: John Wallace

Executive producers: John Carney, Lance Daly, Garrett Kelleher, Macdara Kelleher, Martina Niland

Director of photography: Colin Downey

Production designer: Emma Lowney

Music: Howie B.

Costume designer: Lara Campbell

Editor: Kirsten Sheridan

Sales: Visit Films

No rating, 99 minutes