There’s this old famous Irish saying that goes something like, “It’s easy to halve a potato where there’s love.” It’s basically a much more Irish (and awesome) way of saying “sharing is caring.” The trouble is, what happens when the potato is rotten? Well, if you’ve been a keen observer of world news this year you may have come across a bizarre headline coming out of Siberia in January, which read that four people died after being exposed to poisonous gas emitting from rotten potatoes. It’s a real thing. While it would be much too harsh to call Wiebke von Carolsfeld‘s film about complicated relationships “fatally poisonous,” there is a faint hint of rot that made this reviewer a wee bit queasy on more than one occasion. Hard as it may try to pull you in towards its intimate story, “Stay” ultimately achieves the completely opposite effect and makes you want to run for the hills.
We are introduced to Dermot (Aidan Quinn) in the opening shots of a desolate Irish countryside as he kicks around a can. In his quaint cottage house, his much younger girlfriend Abby (“Orange Is The New Black” star Taylor Schilling) sleeps peacefully. Dermot looks very lovingly at his sleeping beauty, but their age difference is so jarring that in one flashing second—before it’s quickly established they’re lovers—one could think a father was watching his daughter sleep. This age difference between the two is one of the major catalysts for conflict, and if there’s something that’s done right in “Stay,” it’s making sure the reality of age is tackled head on. During the establishing moments, we find out that Abby is originally from Montreal and has a hard time getting a job in the small community close to Galway because the locals make sure she doesn’t feel welcomed. Whether it’s because she’s foreign, or because she’s young, or both, Abby quickly realizes that living in this “dump” is not for her. On the other hand, Dermot is very much in love with his country’s history and culture, and as a retired professor of archaeology the connection he has with his land is undeniable, and an appropriately Irish characteristic (along with his constant drinking of course.)
Trouble starts to brew when Abby finds out she’s pregnant. The look of fear and desperation on her face paints a thousand words; as she quickly accepts a bottle of beer from an intruding Dermot, she just as quickly pours it out into the sink when he leaves. Unsure about how to handle this situation, Abby decides to playfully deride him for not thinking about what this kind of life means for her or her youthfulness and one day, seemingly out of the blue for Dermot, makes the decision to go back to Canada for some perspective. Slightly baffled, Dermot is still quick to agree and let her go. But when he finds the pregnancy test while watching her bathe one day, the audience finds out for the first time that Dermot has some serious issues about having a child. Abby’s reluctance to tell him about the baby now making more sense, Dermot’s sudden marriage proposal while driving her to the airport brings us back to a state of confusion. During their fight, Dermot goes from acceptance to letting her go to proposing marriage to driving away in anger in a span of one minute. Abby is left to go back to her father (Michael Ironside) in Montreal and decide on what to do with her life, her love and the baby that’s growing inside of her. And so begins the hardship for the knife that’s trying to cut this potato in half.
Once we start to swing back and forth from Dermot in Ireland to Abby in Canada, any kind of chance for salvation “Stay” had, starts to slowly rip at the seams. The attention span is put to gruelling tests, as a variety of improbable subplots start cropping up like potatoes during off-season. The locals in the small Irish community start getting fleshed out, but never enough to truly become compelling characters. For example, a very pregnant Deirdre (Nika McGuigan) steps off the bus and comes to her mother’s wake, who was a local woman popular enough to bring in most of the community (including Dermot) to her house. About two weeks before she’s due, Deirdre ends up going into labor right next to her mother’s body which is as uncomfortable to watch as it sounds, and for some inexplicable reason, asks Dermot to stay with her before the ambulance arrives. Once the ambulance does arrive, in a prolonged wide shot of the vehicle driving towards the hills, we hear the paramedics delivering Deirdre’s baby boy into the world. What should have been an intimate moment in connecting the audience to Deirdre (who is one of the film’s most prominent supporting characters) ends up being one of the most awkward and emotionally misplaced birthing scenes this reviewer has seen in quite some time. And that’s just one small example from a whole host of others; none of which bring us any closer to the emotional core of the film nor its messages of handling children or relationships.
The acting is as inspired as the screenplay allows, which just isn’t enough to add any kind of conviction to the events that transpire on screen. From the one and a half hour running time, there are perhaps two moments where something stirs in you and you feel compelled to pay absolute attention. And one of them involves Michael Ironside, who’s career of playing generals and colonels manages to take a surprising swerve into sympathetic parenthood. Quinn and Schilling are truly at their best when their characters are apart, proving that when there’s no chemistry, you’d need a hacksaw to halve a potato. Regardless of this and thanks to the film’s structure of being split between two countries for most of its running time, the solid performances from the two leads is the only kind of glue that this picture manages to keep permanent. Fleeting moments of graceful silence, like Dermot’s old hand stroking Abby’s youthful face to underscore the conflict of age or the overcast beauty of the Irish countryside before any words are spoken, are sadly exceptions to the rules of a love story that ends up going exactly where you expected it to go.
The potential to tell an absorbing tale of unconventional love between a young, adventurous girl who has some deeply rooted issues with her parents, and an older man who has a dark secret from his past is ultimately wasted in “Stay.” Thanks to the overuse of supporting characters who are not nearly interesting enough to warrant the attention they get and important events getting completely fumbled like when Dermot’s secret finally gets revealed, the film’s minor positive qualities can’t hold all the water. The biggest culprit of all is a very impatient sensibility towards the biggest questions the story asks about life, age and finding one’s way. The knife that tried to half this potato gets stuck somewhere along the way, and by the time we meander towards the foregone conclusion, the fumes force us to turn away and not look back. [D+]