'Metal Heart': Film Review | Santa Barbara 2019

Courtesy of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival
There’s lots to “heart” in this indie standout.

Hugh O’Conor’s debut feature is a coming-of-age comedy about Irish twin sisters compulsively competing for love and recognition in their lives.

Sometimes growing up requires a retreat to more juvenile behavior before making the leap to adulthood, as fraternal twin sisters learn in Hugh O’Conor’s refreshing Irish coming-of-age comedy Metal Heart. With a light touch and a knowing regard, O’Conor manages to avoid the genre’s most egregious cliches and simplistic life lessons, instead focusing on the sisters’ often amusing rivalry and their ultimately unshakable familial bond.

Refusing to confront an uncertain future in her final summer of freedom before (hopefully) entering university, Emma (Jordanne Jones) could use something like a plan. It’s not that she doesn’t know what to do with her life, she’s just not exactly sure yet. Not certain, that is, like her sister Chantal (Leah McNamara), the one born with all the blonde good looks and infectious vivaciousness.

Stuck with her retro-'80s worldview and equivalent goth fashion sense, Emma is left hoping that her best friend Gary (Sean Doyle), who’s secretly crushing on her, will finally join her in launching their nascent metal band. That would give her a chance to fully emote the often dreary song lyrics she’s always writing, if there’s actually an audience for that sort of thing. Or she could, as Chantal somewhat snidely suggests, just get a job. But that’s typical coming from her sister, who’s already working on a business plan to take her beauty blog viral. 

Their parents’ departure on a multi-week overseas trip, leaving the girls in charge of the house and looking after each other, tips their simmering hostility toward open warfare. Chantal immediately takes the opportunity to invite her sorta boyfriend over for no-apologies hot sex, driving Emma absolutely mental. She soon finds her own distraction, however, in their neighbor Dan (Moe Dunford), newly returned to the house next door to look after his ailing mother. It turns out he’s a semi-famous musician from an indie band that imploded several years earlier who takes to offering Emma helpful suggestions about her rock ’n’ roll ambitions.

When Chantal injures her neck in a car accident and has to put both her job and her blog on hold while she recovers, it’s suddenly looking like Emma’s time to shine, if she’s not tripped up by certain male friends with ulterior motives.

Paul Murray’s script gives the narrative a slight sheen of heightened realism, so that improbable events, like Emma taking over Chantal’s job at a pastel-pretty ice cream parlor and popularizing it as a destination for her alt-cool friends, seem somehow comically appropriate. Stringing these incidents together appears to come more easily than crafting character nuances, however. Although Emma and Chantal are well delineated in their oppositional worldviews and behavioral characteristics, Dan’s shady dealings with Emma and Gary’s romantic confusion are less clearly envisioned.

Fortunately, Murray and O’Conor have two strong lead actresses to carry a movie that may turn out to be a breakout opportunity for either or both of them. Jones displays a nice range elaborating Emma’s evolution from sulky goth girl to improbable Miss Popular, all the while barely restraining a distinctly rebellious streak. McNamara gets the more comic role setting up Chantal’s obnoxious attitude for a major come-down, but when the going gets emotional and the sisters find they must unfailingly rely on one another, she reveals a rewardingly emotional dimension.

O’Conor maintains a lively pace and makes the most of limited locations and resources. Shooting in the Dublin suburbs doesn’t add much distinction to the setting, but DP Eoin McLoughlin’s crisp lensing and honeyed lighting lend key scenes a rich glow that reflects favorably on the two leads.

Production companies: Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, Treasure Entertainment
Cast: Jordanne Jones, Leah McNamara, Moe Dunford, Sean Doyle, Aaron Heffernan
Director: Hugh O’Conor
Screenwriter: Paul Murray
Producers: Claire McCaughley, Rebecca O’Flanagan, Robert Walpole
Executive producers: Hilary Davis, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Director of photography: Eoin McLoughlin
Production designer: Neill Treacy
Costume designer: Belle Phipps
Editor: Julian Ulrichs
Music: John McPhillips
Casting: Louise Kiely
Venue: Santa Barbara International Film Festival

88 minutes