The Quiet Girl is one of the most beautiful movies I’ve ever seen. It is perfection. It is impossibly small, and emotionally immense. This is the sort of film that creeps up on you slowly, in ways that you don’t realize are happening, until you are so utterly overcome with emotion that you don’t quite know how to digest it. It’s the sort of film that you sit through the entire end credits of, not because you are wondering which Marvel character will make a surprise appearance after them, or to be polite to the artists and craftspeople who made it (both of which are, of course, completely valid reasons), but because you simply cannot move, you’re that overwhelmed.
Honestly, it’s been a long time since I felt like it was disrespectful to the cinema audience that when the lights come up, you are expected to leave. I could have just sat alone in the dark for a while longer with the feeling this beyond-lovely movie left me with.
That feeling is the most bittersweet of pathos that the coming-of-age genre offers: the one that is all about a child learning that the way the world is for you is not necessarily the way it is for everyone else. And that the way it is for you could be better than it is. It is about the smashing of childhood innocence… or, perhaps more accurately, of childhood ignorance. Because sometimes a child’s innocence of the wider world is a good thing to destroy.
So: I’ve heard it said — a screenwriter’s tip — that a movie should be about the most important thing that will ever happen in the protagonist’s life. And it might seem at first that that will not be true for nine-year-old Cait (Catherine Clinch), who in the rural Irish summer of 1981 is sent by her parents to live with relatives she does not know. How earthshattering could that be?
For Cait, it is. Life at home is chaotic and messy. Her mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh: Shadow Dancer) is overwhelmed, with too many kids and another on the way, arriving soon; her father (Michael Patric: Warcraft, Becoming Jane) is a boorish drunk, remote and distant. Sensitive Cait is the slightly oddball youngest child among a gaggle of much more confident, tougher older siblings. (We may presume, however, that they will have their own lingering traumas from this home life.) So off Cait goes, to, at a bare minimum, give her mother a bit of a break in the last months of Mom’s pregnancy. Sending Cait away is definitely about what is best for everyone else, not about what is best for Cait.
The entirety of this film, based on the renowned 2010 story “Foster” by Claire Keegan and mostly in Irish Gaelic, is wholly from Cait’s perspective. Writer-director Colm Bairéad, with his narrative feature debut, utilizes a square-ish aspect ratio, constrained like Cait’s own view itself is. This is a story in which we, the adult viewer, have more knowledge than its young central character: we see nuances she cannot. So our hearts break for Cait when she discovers that life at the home of her mother’s cousin, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley: Extra Ordinary), and Eibhlín’s farmer husband, Seán (Andrew Bennett: Angela’s Ashes), is calm. Quiet. There are no other children in the house. And Cait is, at first, somewhat mystified to suddenly receive the tender care any child deserves, and that, we instinctively understand, she has never experienced before. The gentleness, the sweet humanity with which Bairéad depicts such simple everyday things as Eibhlín brushing Cait’s hair or tucking her into bed is so poignant that we know it’s the first time Cait has been treated with such kindness.
To be clear: Cait’s parents are not abusive. They are not cruel. If they are neglectful, it is of an ordinary stripe, a benign distraction that is, alas, all too common. But that’s a low bar… and Cait’s discovery of the fact that life can be better than the bare minimum she has experienced before is the most-important-moment-of-her-life thing in this extraordinary movie.
There is more going on here: Eibhlín and Seán are, of course, more complex than Cait can appreciate at first, and the slow unfolding of their mysteries through Cait’s eyes becomes the dawning awareness of a child’s recognition of the richness of adult life. So that’s another awakening for Cait: that not only can her life be more, but that other people’s lives are already more. For a perceptive, sympathetic child like Cait, this is shattering.
I love this movie so much. I love that this is a movie you sit with. I love its slowness, and its quiet compassion. Many movies are very fast and loud now, but even among those that are not, The Quiet Girl is uniquely contemplative; few are as considered, as unassumingly pensive as this one. It is a treasure, and a gift.