The Young Offenders is a clever buddy comedy about a couple of not-so-clever Cork teens who endeavour to get rich quick by stealing cocaine from a recently capsized shipping vessel.
From the off, The Young Offenders presents itself as a jaunty, light-hearted picture. The film cold opens on Jock (Chris Walley) and Conor (Alex Murphy) talking about what they’d do with €1 million.
“What would you do with a million euro?” Jock asks.
“What’s the budget?” Conor replies, and from here an Abbott and Costello routine by way of north Cork city delights an already smiling and charmed audience.
By the time the opening credits begin to roll, we’ve heard the boys talk about decking out a lavish mansion on the hills overlooking the city with “gold walls”, “fur curtains” and a “Batcave but not the Batcave, we’d call it the Boys’ Cave.”
The conversation has the feeling of improv, but it’s studied and knowing as well, setting the tone for this comedy of gormless ambition.
Jock is the mastermind behind a scheme to steal a bale of cocaine from a capsized shipping vessel off the coast of West Cork. His thinking is that because Conor and himself are under 16, they can’t do hard time for the crime because they are still classified as young offenders.
The particulars of the venture aren’t that important to Jock or to Conor, who, in perfect deadpan sincerity commends his friend’s scheming: “I can see nothing at all wrong with this plan.”
For a bit of context, the fictional events depicted in the film are set around the real Operation Seabight, which led to Ireland’s biggest-ever cocaine seizure off of the coast of County Cork. In total, €750 million worth of cocaine was recovered from the scene.
Conor and Jock are after one bale of coke in the film, estimated to be worth about €7 million, nothing to sniff at. The boys have motivations beyond “fur curtains” and “Spanish girls” for wanting the money. Jock lives with his alcoholic father and Conor feels unwanted by his mother.
The duo don’t seem to fit in at school either, and there’s concern from Conor’s mother over Jock’s negative influence on her son. However, exposition is kept to a minimum and serves mainly as a set-up for more gags.
Even these social issues are treated with a light touch by director Peter Foott, who chooses to score scenes of domestic trouble with upbeat music. I’m not suggesting that there are no serious or affecting moments in the film, or that it shows little empathy for its characters, but instead, that the film arrives at these moments through comedy rather than drama.
It’s an effective approach that hits the audience with unexpected bursts of poignancy that punctuate otherwise farcical or madcap scenes. The emotional highs and lows in The Young Offenders are intensified because the film is nearly always funny.
On their journey to claim a share of the cocaine, Conor and Jock run into their share of foibles. These vignettes are often oddly sweet and illustrate the bond between the boys.
Conor teaches Jock how to swim. We see them roughhousing, racing bicycles and generally getting up to wholesome boys-on-an-adventure mischief. It’s heart-warming.
At one point, Jock attempts to confront his nemesis, a local Garda named Healy, by channelling Robert De Niro’s character in Heat. It goes poorly, and again, Peter Foott charms the audience with Jock and Conor’s haphazard evasion of the law.
There are shades of the great double-acts in here: Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, the aforementioned Abbott and Costello.
There’s the influence too of great buddy movies. I’d liken the film to Midnight Run, Dumb and Dumber, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America and other classics of the genre.
But for me, The Young Offenders most readily brought to mind Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, in its delicate touch and almost subliminal depth of wisdom. The film is sensitive but not at the expense of its humour.
The Young Offenders has been a resounding success. Current box office receipts total more than €500,000, against a €50,000 budget. Those are impressive numbers.
The film’s small budget also allows it an economic artfulness. There’s something humble and unassuming about the movie’s high-speed bicycle chases, amusing montages and sitcom-style plotting.
It is in a lot of ways televisual in its execution, but this is no knock against the picture. In fact, its situation-comedy tendencies result in a great final act in which coincidences and consequences collide with side-splitting results.
The Young Offenders is a very accomplished feature. Excellent casting is complimented by a pacey, clever and insightful script. Peter Foott’s direction is on-point. The jokes come thick and fast and always land, which is a rarity in big-screen comedy.
When I see a comedic film for review I make a little mark on my notepad every time I laugh, by the end of The Young Offenders, my page was covered in ticks. More ticks than any film this year, or for many other years.