We are living in the age of superheroes, cinematically speaking at least. On any given day, multiple screens in your local cinema will be showing the latest instalments in any number of long-running comic-book franchises.
Metal Heart is not based on a comic series or graphic novel, but it feels like it could be. A feature debut from director Hugh O’Conor with larger-than-life aesthetic and teen dramedy sensibilities, it has an appealing Daniel Clowes-y feel to it – the quirky spirit of independent comics shot through independent cinema.
Sisters Emma and Chantal (Jordanne Jones and Leah McNamara) are fraternal, definitely not identical, twins. Once inseparable, they have drifted far apart and are now engaged in a never-ending war of words and wits.
Their dynamic is established in the opening scene, when they bicker over Emma monopolising the bathroom as she wrestles with writing some very self-serious song lyrics in the tub. The twins’ parents get it from both sides as Chantal complains about Emma being self-absorbed and Emma alleges much the same of her sister.
Mum and Dad hope the girls can work out their differences over the summer while they’re away touring South American jungles. Emma’s voiceover expounds on the differences between her and Chantal, and it’s clear for the audience to see that the twins have grown apart, but what’s initially intriguing about Metal Heart is the possibility of these two embattled siblings coming closer together.
Jordanne Jones, who was so captivating in Frank Berry’s I Used to Live Here, brings an effortless charm to Emma. Dressed as though she’s off to a particularly hip funeral, with make-up to match, Emma is an acerbic and snarky grrrl in the style of misanthrope icons like Daria Morgendorffer or Ghost World’s own Enid Coleslaw. She’s sharp and doesn’t suffer fools, and she’s a raincloud when compared to Chantal, a veritable rainbow of good cheer and positivity.
The interplay between the twins makes for most of the comedy in the early stages of the film. The contrast between them is highlighted to us through some clever set design and camera angling.
At one point, we view the girls’ bedrooms side on, and the walls are removed to show them side by side, like comic panels. Emma’s room looks like Bela Lugosi’s box room, whereas Chantal’s is all bright pastels and neat cushion arrangements. There are many pleasing visual gags throughout the film, but none reach the heights of this early comic-bookish sight gag.
Emma’s attitude and interactions with the world around her raise a lot of smiles too. Expletives fly as she walks with her bandmate, Gary (Seán Doyle), back to his house, conveniently located next to a graveyard. Gary’s great to look at too – at one point he’s described as looking “literally like Halloween like”.
Emma and Gary hope to make it big with their as-yet-unnamed band over the summer. They have a pie chart that breaks down their musical style in such a way as to ensure originality, but there are pesky things like money, finding a rehearsal space and Gary’s disapproving stepfather standing in the way of superstardom.
On that note, Gary’s stepfather, an American, Ivy League, businessman type, is excellent as a thorn in Gary’s side. Their differences are amusing, but like much else in Metal Heart they tease at weightier emotions.
Gary wants acceptance, but all he gets are platitudes and ultimatums. It’s as though his stepfather is an executive manger in charge of Gary’s future with little or no interest in who the boy is as an individual, or indeed, what he wants from his own life.
Further complications arise when Emma falls in with Dan (Moe Dunford), an older musician who almost made the big time with his band Ampersand. Dan, who lives next door with his bed-ridden mother, takes a big interest in Emma. She is also crushing on Dan, and he’s a prospect that’s made all the sweeter by his disinterest towards Chantal.
But make no mistake, Dan is a cad. His game is obvious from moment one – to the audience, to everyone in the movie except Emma. Dan has a one-track mind. He talks about sex at every opportunity. He feels more adolescent than any of the teens on the screen. It’s a pointed characterisation recalling recent exposés on the likes of Ryan Adams and other gatekeeper music men.
Dan and Emma’s blossoming relationship – taking in horse races, driving around aimlessly, jamming out in Dan’s mother’s garage – is a big chunk of the second act, and it’s a shame because the whole thing is a foregone conclusion. Nothing’s gonna work out well with a guy like Dan. Credit goes to Dunford and scriptwriter Paul Murray for making the character straight-up unsympathetic. Unfortunately, the downside of this is that most of the film’s B-plot feels perfunctory,
When Metal Heart treats us to other diversions, the main and supporting characters really shine. A car accident leaves Chantal in a neck brace and so Emma has to take up her job as server at an impossibly colourful ice cream parlour. Emma’s quick thinking exploits a gap in the market of Goths who enjoy ice cream.
When Emma visits Gary at an after-school chess club, we witness an amusing hierarchy of misfits. Later, the unlikely pairing of Emma’s bandmate Gary and Chantal’s boyfriend Alan (Aaron Heffernan as an affable chucklehead) is a highlight of the film as the two very different men bond over girl troubles and music.
What surprised me about the teenage characters in Metal Heart is their level of understanding and decency to one another. This aspect feels the most fantastical element in the film, and perhaps the most comic-book-y as well. At times you’ll wonder if you’re watching some alternative-universe version of Archie transplanted to the Dublin suburbs.
As corny as it might be, though, it’s refreshing to see the film eschew the familiar dynamics of the teen film. After Alan tells Gary he looks like Halloween, he quickly follows with, “Sorry, I don’t mean that, you look amazing, get in the van for a second.”
The rub is that any one of these plot points has enough rope to run alongside Chantal and Emma’s fraternal feud. Dan does serve a purpose in bringing the familial conflict to a head, but, it’s at the cost of Metal Heart’s momentum.
Metal Heart manages to rally toward the end with some affecting interpersonal moments. There’s a sense that by the close of the film all of the characters that matter are fully aware of how much they mean to their family and friends.
The self-worth that Emma was searching for all along is shown to us through those around her. Love, the film argues, never really goes away, not with family or those we treat like family.
The ending is sweet and sincere enough to carry Metal Heart through. This is a mostly good debut, with some minor hiccups along the way. O’Conor, Murray and a very talented cast should be proud of what they have here.