Dublin’s damped and gloomy days underscore the heartfelt human drama in Irish filmmaker Gerard Barrett‘s affecting feature “Glassland.” Centered on a
mother and a son, the film doesn’t resort to excessive embellishments to capture the agony of addiction and the strength of unshakable love. Its
melancholic beauty is elicited from the decisively enthralling cinematography and two utterly intense performances. The characters, like the film itself,
offer sincere tenderness amidst the irrational affliction they must face together.
Working as cab driver to support his small imperfect family, John (Jack Reynor) leads a life with few hopes for his own future. As he assures on a
recurrent voice over phrase, he’s exhausted and frustrated with his predetermined existence. The monumental task of taking care of Jean (Toni Collette),
his alcoholic mother, is not limited to the financial aspect. She routinely drinks herself to the point of shameless and violent incoherence. These
episodes inevitably take a toll on John who’s unable to find a way to combat her corrosive illness.
Tireless John carries this enormous burden in addition to his already numerous responsibilities, such as visiting his younger brother Kit (Harry Nagle), who was born with Down syndrome and lives in a government facility
given that the situation at home is far less than ideal. Revealing her tremendous selfishness, Jean refuses to visit her youngest, which leaves John to fill in
the emotional void as best as he can. His kind efforts are as simple as a spontaneous car ride or a birthday card, but they are constant and brimming with
Though not explicitly discussed, John’s actions let us know that some of the work he is involved with is not exactly law-abiding. Caught up in this daily
chaos, the young man’s only relief is his time with childish, but loyal, best friend Shane (played by a humorous and endearing Will Poulter), a video game-loving momma’s boy. Their lives couldn’t be more
disparate as Shane is planning to escape the passiveness of this town by traveling abroad. Quietly disguising his sadness with lighthearted banter, John
internally understands he can’t just pack up and leave.
Observing his characters’ challenging reality as if hiding behind door frames, Barret and his cinematographer Piers McGrail construct a visually poetic maze out of this family’s mistrust and
disappointment. The glass partitions can’t contain their explosive arguments always adorned with powerful moments of bare truth. Through these stylistic
choices we are invited to become silent witnesses with the camera. Each door becomes a window into the bottled up anger and suffering that resides in their
home. Sometimes we are allowed to lean in closer to look at Jean’s tormented face or John’s inspiring determination. More often, we must wait outside the room for the next outburst to occur. It’s visual storytelling at its best.
Showcasing a precise ability for nuanced tone, Barrett assertively chooses to sprinkle a handful of subtly comedic moments, which offer glimpses of joy as
palpable and delicate as the most painful sequences in the film. John is an unsung hero who never wallows in the daunting nature of his circumstances, but
rather strives to find solutions. Capturing the very essence of this troubled man, Reynor gives a moving performance that irradiates compassion and
generosity towards all those he encounters. Every smile, scream, and piercingly disapproving look towards Jean’s behavior carries a touching sense of duty.
His character strongly refuses to succumb to despair and doing the correct thing is always above everything else. This is a career-making performance that
while subdued, stands out because of its naturalistic humanity.
But Reynor is not alone when it comes to marvelous on-camera work here. In what becomes a standout scene, Toni Collette delivers a devastating monologue
that is at once genuinely devastating and harrowing. She dishes out her thoughts on motherhood, loneliness, and her dependence on the negatively soothing
friend that is alcohol. Collette is marvelously vulnerable and occasionally even terrifying. It’s at once a physically and psychologically haunting
performance that complements Reynor’s gentle strength. She is consumed by her character in a powerful manner.
Their road to recovery it scattered with tangible worldly obstacles and the necessity to reconnect spiritually so that she can heal and he can start his
own life. “Glassland” is about this crossroads in their lives, one in which the dark passages must be overpowered by John’s devotion to help Jean. There is
nothing he won’t do to help her, but the uncertainty of their future is reaching unbearable heights. Death lurks in every corner waiting for the final, and
brutal blow to come. John’s mission is to stop his mother from taking it, to save her from herself.
For all its wonderfully dim color palette, for its unexpected charm, its carefully design aesthetics without being overpowering, its heart-wrenching
sensibility, and its compelling cast, Barrett’s “Glassland” is as much a directorial triumph as it is a fantastic challenge for its actors. The film avoids
overdramatic and trite tropes, and instead focuses on its successfully minimalist scope. I loved this film for the grave themes explored through a lens
coated with sympathy, and for the brave people it uses to tell its story. John is a quotidian warrior who is untainted by his problematic situation,
although his face portrays a stark demeanor, there’s a smiling face reflected on the glass in front of him. That internal desire to be happy cannot be
“Glassland” opens today in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall and in NYC at Cinema Village. The film is also available on VOD.
Note: Review originally published during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival where “Glassland” premiered