Though gently restrained and delicately crafted, “The Quiet Girl” has managed to make plenty of noise. Colm Bairead’s modestly scaled drama, his narrative directorial debut, is the highest-grossing Irish-language film of all time. It bested “Belfast” at the Irish Film & Television Awards. And it’s nominated for best international film at the Academy Awards, a first for Ireland.
It’s not hard to see why. Bairead’s sensitive and heartfelt film, which is debuting in many theaters Friday, is a stirring testament to what’s possible on a modest scale with a few well-chosen words. Set in 1981 rural Ireland, “The Quiet Girl” — a clever tweak to the title of John Ford’s Ireland-set “The Quiet Man” — comes from Claire Keegan’s short story “Foster,” and it preserves much of the rhythm and concision of a good short story.
A willowy and taciturn 9-year-old, Cait (Catherine Clinch, a newcomer of staggering poise), is mostly overlooked in her cacophonous and coarse working-class family. Her mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) is exhausted from raising another baby and has another on the way. Her gruff father (Michael Patric) has abandoned tending to their farm and mostly spends his time drinking and gambling. Cait’s older sisters don’t have much affection for her, either. “Which one is she?” someone asks her father. “The wanderer,” he answers.
To ease life at home, they ship Cait to her mother’s cousin for the summer. The sisters don’t bother saying goodbye. Her father peels out forgetting to even leave her bags. Cait’s never even met the couple that takes her in: Eibhlin and Sean Cinnsealach (Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett), an older pair who live far more peacefully on a sun-dappled and well-tended farm. Eibhlin, played beautifully by Crowley, is immediately tender with her.
“If there are secrets in a house, there is shame in that house,” she tells Cait. “There are no secrets in this house.”
Some things go unspoken. The bedroom Cait sleeps in has train wallpaper but there’s no mention of them having had a child. Sean is initially standoffish with Cait, and you wonder if here, again, is a father-figure without any love for her. But their relationship warms and Cait falls into the daily routines of the farm and the blessed quiet harmony of their home. “The Quiet Girl” unfolds as a nurturing idyll that couldn’t be sweeter even though we know it can’t last forever. A calf is weaned on her mother’s milk, Cait is told, but then is fed powdered milk. Nourishment, for all creatures, can come from outside the home.
There’s much to soak up in “The Quiet Girl,” including Kate McCullough’s radiant cinematography and Emma Lowney’s graceful production design. Sentimentality is always close at hand but never barges in. Bairead, who’s worked previously in documentary, coaxes the story out sensitively, sticking almost entirely to Cait’s perspective. As a portrait of a child’s resilience — and the damning view of adulthood that can be spied from young eyes — it could sit comfortably alongside Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s similarly affecting “The Kid With a Bike.” JAKE COYLE, MDT/AP Film Writer