'Glassland': Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
 A small but pretty impressive indie from Ireland with top-notch acting

Toni Collette plays the alcoholic mother of an Irish taxi driver in this intimate second feature from writer-director Gerard Barrett.

The life of a young Dublin taxi driver mainly consists of working nights and looking after his alcoholic mother in the quietly impressive drama Glassland. The second feature of director Gerard Barrett, whose first film, Pilgrim Hill, had its international premiere at Telluride in 2012, has two major selling points: Toni Collette’s blistering performance as the alternately enraged and uncaring mother, and exceptional work from Transformers: Age of Extinction’s Jack Reynor as her good-hearted son who’s conflicted about what to do with his unreasonable and clearly sick mother. After its Sundance premiere, this bleak indie should travel the festival circuit, with a small distributor likely coming on board for a bicoastal, day-and-date release.

The house that John (Reynor) shares with his mother, Jean (Collette), is not only small — the widescreen frame almost always has a doorway or wall that’s out of focus in the foreground, heightening the claustrophobia — but also not particularly well looked after. In the wordless opening scenes, John has to water down the milk for his cereal because there’s not enough and needs to fish a dirty spoon out of the sink from underneath a pile of dirty dishes. Before anyone has even said anything, the economy of Barrett as a storyteller is abundantly clear.

When John finds his mother unresponsive in her bed after another drinking binge, he races her to the hospital in his rickety taxi. The doctors there aren’t particularly hopeful; she’ll need a liver transplant in the near future but they’re not even sure if she’ll make it that far. Jean’s first words, a good 15 minutes in and right after she’s home from the hospital, are a frantically shouted “Where are theeeeey?” referring to the wine and spirits that John has thrown out. Clearly, this adult son has been mothering his sick mother for quite some time, but her hospitalization and immediate return to the bottle finally make it clear in John’s head that something needs to change and it needs to happen now.

The young man's sense of responsibility extends not only to his mother, but also his younger brother, Kit (Harry Nagle), who has Down syndrome and has been placed in a care facility, and John’s best buddy, Shane (Will Poulter, The Maze Runner, We’re the Millers), who also still lives with his mother (fathers are in short supply in this film). The way in which Shane treats his mom — she needs to be told off when she’s bringing him tea because she dares to pass in front of the TV — offers a telling contrast to the very caring rapport John has with his mother, though the film later reveals that Shane’s got his own paternal frustrations that may have played a role in shaping his behavior. His conflicted rapport with the world is also one of the otherwise pretty bleak film’s few and very welcome sources of humor.

Compared to Shane or indeed almost anyone else, John might at first sight seem like something of a saint. Thankfully, nuanced writing and equally nuanced acting make sure that that’s not the case here. In fact, John’s patchy beard suggests he’s still not quite out of childhood and his occasional flare-ups show he’s only got a finite amount of patience. Besides, possibly the only way to get through to someone like Jean — an addict without the strength to break the destructive cycle she’s in — is to raise your voice and let her know that she's not only destroying herself, but also her loved ones. John tells her that much in an impressively acted confrontation in his taxi, where he yells and cries that he lives with a stranger and she’s breaking his heart. An earlier, mid-film heart-to-heart between mother and son is another highlight, as Collette manages, in this single, dialog-heavy scene, to show us both how life has set her up for addiction and, almost simultaneously, the mother that makes John put up with all her terrible behavior for the rest of the film. Several close-ups of Reynor’s face as he beams with love or is fraught with worry for Kit, Shane or Jean tell the rest of the story and confirm the actor’s impressive talent for conveying emotions without using words.

A subplot involving the transportation of Asian women in his taxi to dubious locations is a tad too enigmatically told and edited to really make clear what’s happening, and since it plays into the finale, there's no real sense of closure or catharsis but just a lot of confusion. However, the rest of the film’s assembly is impressively controlled for such a small project (both Poulter and Collette only had four days of shooting). Technical contributions are all quite humble, but considering the small and rather poor world in which the characters live, this is entirely appropriate.

Production companies: Element Pictures, Nine Entertainment

Cast: Jack Reynor, Toni Collette, Will Poulter, Michael Smiley, Harry Nagle

Writer-director: Gerard Barrett

Producers: Ed Guiney, Juliette Bonass

Executive producers: Andrew Lowe, Gerard Barrett

Director of photography: Piers McGrail

Production designer: Stephanie Clerkin

Costume designer: Leonie Prendergast

Editor: Nathan Nugent

Casting: Louise Kiely

Sales: Kaleidoscope Film Distribution

No rating, 92 minutes