For ages, neglected or abused children have provided fodder for mainstream entertainment, as proven by the lasting reputations of Oliver Twist and Little Orphan Annie alike. Youth, however, makes for a tough subject of filmmakers intent on capturing realism: The challenge of eliciting a believable performance — requiring extreme mental focus throughout repeated takes — asks a lot of anyone; the feat grows exponentially harder when the actor in question has barely lived enough to hone the skill at all.
For that reason alone, a good child actor can really make the movie. The Irish drama “Kisses,” in which two adolescents fall in love on the night they both escape from their dysfunctional homes, stands out almost exclusively due to the performative quality of its two young leads. A trim, 75-minute shot of coming-of-age whimsy, it offers few memorable scenes, but the immediate sympathy evoked by Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O’Neill) creates a lasting impact solely with the sorrow and confusion that crosses their faces. The movie itself is a comparatively tame affair, but Curry and O’Neill rank alongside Jean-Pierre Leaud in “The 400 Blows” as child actors unencumbered by the work at hand.
Neighbors in an impoverished town on the outskirts of Dublin, Dylan and Kylie both cope with grown-up abuse: Kylie’s uncle sexually assaults her, and Dylan routinely evades his father’s drunken rage. During one such moment of aggression, Dylan strikes back and escapes out the window, where Kylie waits below. The duo makes a desperate escape and eventually heads to the city. Director Lance Daly directs this swift development as awkward slapstick: Dread reaches a breaking point and veers into farce, which paves the way for the exuberant trip that follows.
Dylan and Kylie hitch a ride on the nearby river and wander straight into Dublin, searching for Dylan’s older brother, who similarly left home years earlier. Daly portrays the city as a vibrant character (as he did in his first feature, 2001’s “Last Days in Dublin”) with an almost magical sheen seen from the perspective of his sheltered characters. Having started the story in stark black-and-white, he slowly introduces color to enhance the sense of complexity suddenly apparent to their provincial eyes.
The bulk of the Dublin scenes are framed as a kind of gritty adventure story, with Dylan and Kylie dashing through the streets, avoiding dangerous street figures and interrogating any adult figure willing to give them the time of day. Their exploratory intentions hum along with a slight, undercooked momentum, but their ambitions are unshakably adorable — just like the basic concept: Looking for his brother, Dylan instead finds himself.
Unfortunately, much of this transition takes place in an overabundance of music montages, as the kids giddily bound about town to the tune of gentle pop melodies. These extraneous segments undeniable echo the filmography of Shane Meadows, whose narratives rely on the rhythm of children hanging out to much more evocative effect.
But even though Daly could have toned down this playful technique, he successfully turns up the volume with a breathless chase sequence through the city streets. When Kylie gets kidnapped and Dylan comes to the rescue, he finally gets his chance to shine. The story’s dramatic potential briefly clicks, as if this sudden twist finally shattered their delusion of making the runaway lifestyle work.
Daly’s screenplay constantly pits Dylan and Kylie’s imaginatively charged perception of the world against the blander real deal. An encounter with Bob Dylan in a shadowy alley strikes the kids as a transcendent experience, even though the lingering camera reveals the man as a frontman for the local cover band. Dylan’s skepticism about the existence of a folkloric monster known as “The Sack Man” evaporates when he encounters a real monster of the streets with murderous intentions.
The kids’ inability to fully understand the dark environment surrounding them turns “Kisses” into an increasingly precious affair, filled with plenty of “aww” moments to undercut the uglier aspects of their dreary existence. Daly’s titular motif — kissing as a charitable gesture — delivers the movie’s cheesiest device. Still, the eventual return to black-and-white photography when life goes back to normal provocatively displays the perseverance of sincerity as yet another childhood fantasy.
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