Tarrac is a briskly paced, Irish-language sports film focusing on naomhóg racing. An underdog story that, thanks to a savvy script by Black ’47’s Eugene O’Brien, breezes past a lot of the generic formula and foregrounds human drama to great effect.
As we meet Aoife (Kelly Gough) she’s about to return home to Kerry from Dublin to tend to her ailing father, Bear (Lorcan Cranitch), a fisherman who recently suffered a heart attack. Aoife is uneasy about the days and weeks ahead.
An early scene sees Aoife looking out over the ocean, vague memories of sporting events, the laughter and cheers of the crowd echoing in her head. As director Declan Recks pans the camera to follow Aoife’s gaze out to the ocean, the waves seem to move impossibly fast. Rushing around her bare feet and pulling them down into the sand.
Aoife’s past is catching up to her, or, as with the ebb and flow of the tide, coming back to meet her. She stares out, for a moment content, but soon a perplexed expression comes over her. The return home to help her father brings her back too – to her past self – and brings with it the sudden sting of regret.
Back at the farmhouse, Aoife and Bear fall into an uneasy but familiar parent-child dynamic. Bear chastises his daughter for her absence over the years. “It takes a heart attack to get you to come and see me.”
Seemingly, Aoife left her home in a hurry and never looked back. Her life in Dublin has been hectic and full-on for many years now. Hanging up her clothes in her old bedroom we see nothing but powersuits and activewear.
Later, she describes long days and sleepless nights at work. She’s banked so much overtime and unused holiday days that she could stay with Bear for over a month – if she wanted to that is.
Aoife’s bedroom looks frozen in time. Posters hang on the wall and glow-in-the-dark plastic stars adorn the ceiling.
Lying there staring at the ceiling, she looks like a teenager again. Recks captures that uncanny, time-travel feeling of visiting your family home. The framing is tight and close-up, making Aoife’s world feel small.
Aoife, in her role as carer, finds herself falling into old routines. Taking up childhood habits and roles again.
After a night in the town Aoife timidly tiptoes back upstairs and tries to evade her father’s questions. In these moments the metropolitan business woman shrinks into a past life, still defiant but uncertain of herself and clearly uncomfortable around a father who just as much ran from her in these years after the death of Aoife’s mother.
With the past swelling and crashing around her like the sea outside her window, Aoife finds herself drawn back into the world of competitive rowing. In an early sequence she hurries out to sea to rescue her father, who turns out to be sleeping on his boat, rather than dead as she had feared.
Racing back to shore, Bear teases Aoife: “You’re not on your rowing machine now.” As she pulls toward the shore, she collapses and vomits from exhaustion.
The local naomhóg crew are excited to have Aoife back. Her reputation as a promising rower, along with those of her mother and father, have remained in the air in the small town of Baile na Trá for many years now.
The crew are down a woman heading into the Munster semi-finals, and Aoife reluctantly agrees to take up the oars again. Some conflicts arise, and Aoife’s cut-throat corporate attitude sees the crew in need of another new member. Rachel Feeney, as young Olympic hopeful Naomi, fills out the roster.
Feeney puts in a great performance here. Like Aoife, Naomi is used to fighting, but her circumstances are even more fraught and tragic.
Naomi lives with her cousin Noellie (Cillian O’Gairbhi) in the local caravan park. Noellie is played as an odd guy, good-natured but awkward. He bonds with Aoife over her car.
Eventually, Noellie settles into the role of a confidante and a cheerleader. The heart on-sleeve emotion on display in the later sections of Tarrac, while expected from a film such as this, feels more direct because Recks and O’Brien push it to the front of the narrative.
Recks is not so interested in training montages and the like. Tarrac bangs through the usual sports-movie story beats at a quick drumroll pace.
For instance, the film’s climactic boat race seems to focus more on characters’ faces than the boating itself. And it’s in these moments of extremely focused emotion that Tarrac speaks directly to the audience.
For Aoife and Bear, there’s no moving past the hurt they’ve felt in the past, for and from each other. You can’t bring the dead back to life, you can’t undo your words and actions, but, like the oar pulling through the waves, you can attempt to live life in the moment, in motion.
There’s a close-up on Aoife’s face as she screams in pain during the final boat race. Her father looks on from the dock, tears welling up.
The events of the film don’t change either of them in any profound way, but they do help to create a time and place in which they can both live with and be proud of one another. Tarrac is now playing in cinemas nationwide.