Dating Amber, Reviewed

School is hell for Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) the shy, awkward and gay son of an army man who dodges a constant barrage of slags and put-downs from his peers while trying desperately to blend in and keep up with the hyper-sexed courtship rituals of a small-town schoolyard circa 1995.

An early misadventure sees Eddie, fumbling, bumbling, and at some points, recoiling in horror when he’s goaded into kissing a classmate. Despite the encounter playing like a Jerry Lewis routine it’s enough to get his classmates to set their sights on another target for a change.

When his classmates aren’t taking pot shots at Eddie or each other they’re slinging homophobia at Amber (Lola Petticrew). Amber is a loner. She sports a multicoloured riot grrrl hairdo, an offbeat dress sense, and is always always reading a zine or drawing her own. In this world of grey school uniforms where heteronormativity reigns supreme, Amber may as well have a bullseye painted on her.

Eddie recognises Amber’s plight as his own, but as with everything else in his life he won’t do anything about it. It’s Amber that takes the initiative suggesting that the two enter into a relationship of convenience until school is over. Her approach is as subtle as a brick to the head as she pelts a stone at Eddie knocking him off his bike before making the proposition.

Petticrew and O’Shea are undoubtedly the standout element of Dating Amber. Petticrew as Amber is a forceful presence, she speaks as though she’s biting every word that comes out of her mouth. While her turn of phrase is amusing, it speaks to the tragedy in the characters backstory. She is a hard-bitten girl but there’s a playful side to her as well.

In the role of Eddie, O’ Shea channels elements of his character Ned from 2016’s Handsome Devil, but ultimately Eddie is more hapless and gangling a character. Ned may have been bottom of the pecking order at his school but that character had more of a handle on who he was and what he was about than Eddie.

In another era, O’Shea could work well as the bumbling leading man caught up in a screwball romance. Amber and Eddie’s fake coupling up is far messier than those Palaeontologist-meets-Daffy-Heiress pictures of old, but some of the same tricks are at play.

Pulp’s “Mile End” over the opening credits foreshadows the ups and downs of the narrative “Ooh, it’s a mess alright.” croons Jarvis Cocker preparing us for the teenage drama that follows.

Eddie is the more buttoned-up of the two. At home, his father’s fleeting return from a months long peacekeeping mission brings more trouble to Eddie’s life. Eddie’s parents, Ian (Barry Ward) and Hannah (Sharon Horgan) struggle to keep their frustrations with one another at bay. Eddie feels forced into following in his father’s footsteps and struggles his way through army training with his eyes on a cadetship.

Eddie’s bedroom is adorned with military trinkets and posters. These macho army men on the wall take on a different meaning for the audience, bridging the dreams of a young boy and the desires of a young man. Amber puts it bluntly: “Jesus. This must be what the inside of your gay brain looks like.”

There’s an impulsiveness to director David Freyne’s filmmaking that throws emotion and action at the audience with a beating-heart intensity. The writing mostly works, particularly when it comes to Eddie and Amber, but there are, unfortunately, many aspects of the film that miss the mark.

Dating Amber runs on the same hormonal energy as its characters. The film is prone to mood swings and packs a dizzying number of tonal shifts and variation in style into a 90-minute running-time.

Some of these diversions undermine rather than underscore, like a scene in which Ian breaks down crying in front of Eddie is shortly followed by a comic montage of the two engaged in mock army manoeuvres.

Other clunkers include a parody of a sex education video featuring a nun talking to a newlywed couple through the basics of sexual intercourse that would feel outmoded in the ’70s let alone 1995. It feels like something that should be buried on the Extras menu of a DVD.

Then there’s Eddie’s brother Jack, who acts as a sexcapade Greek chorus relating Eddie’s supposed exploits with Amber to their parents over dinner; it’s an annoying bit that’s repeated one too many times.

But as is the case with much of Dating Amber, there is a lot more for Jack to do from one scene to the next. Jack is fixated on the then upcoming divorce referendum and campaigns to the older kids in school to vote no. The hope is that this will save or prolong his parents’ marriage. It’s a touching bit of writing that manages to make a melody out of an otherwise one-note character.

Eventually Amber and Eddie have to face up to the limits of their relationship. Amber, the more ambitious of the two seeks out happiness and begins a real relationship with Sarah (Lauryn Canny) Eddie, meanwhile, is content to keep up the charade for as long as they possibly can.

The scenes showing the first steps of Amber’s relationship with Sarah are handled well, as she experiences an authentic romance distinct from her and Eddie’s public facade. Freyne often shoots scenes so as the characters jump out from the frame with exaggerated actions. So, the sequence where Amber and Sarah splash about on a beach feels like something apart from the rest of the film, we see Amber emerge from the horrors of her school life and into the promise of acceptance and love.

Eddie cannot see beyond his current situation.But Amber believes in Eddie, and wants to help him out even after some fairly dramatic encounters later in the film. In one scene he lashes out at Amber knocking her over and calling her a “dyke” in front of their classmates. In this moment, Eddie is no better than the peers that made him and Amber miserable for so long.

Amber’s willingness to forgive Eddie was puzzling to me. We aren’t shown exactly what Amber sees in Eddie, and so, her cheerleading for him feels tenuous.

Maybe it’s intuition on Amber’s part, a hunch that things will get better for Eddie as they did for her. The story suggests that once you can accept yourself you can find happiness too. It’s an observation brought on by hindsight.

That same hindsight accounts for the good and bad in Dating Amber. Many of the jokes on our country’s recent past falter, there is no denying that the film’s emotion and message feel vital, the courage that Amber and Eddie must show can only be informed by experience. And here’s to hoping that Freyne’s film can help others to find their own path to a brighter future.

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Luke Maxwell: Luke Maxwell is the host of the film review show, Viewfinder on 103.2 Dublin City FM. He also hosts The Movie Express Podcast, which you can find at www.movieexpress.org.

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