Film Review: 'I Used to Live Here'

★★★☆☆
There's often an unfortunate tug-of-war going on beneath the surface of films made primarily with a social agenda in mind and by those who care deeply about the subject. Taking 2013's No Fixed Abode as an example, its cause - highlighting issues surrounding homelessness - was an admirable one, but poor execution and fundamental narrative shortcomings hampered its impact. Indeed, Oren Moverman's Richard Gere-starring Time Out of Mind (2014) was far more successful in its comparable insights. By that token, I Used to Live Here (2015), a film produced by a community affected by teenage suicides, could have suffered from similar problems. Such concerns were unfounded.

Despite utilising willing but mostly non-professional actors from Tallaght in West Dublin, writer/director Frank Berry has managed to shape a subtle and moving drama about the ripple effect of a young man's suicide on his peers. The inexperienced cast stumbles a little during some awkward and stilted early exchanges but, much like the narrative they inhabit, they slowly settle into their surroundings and the narrative finds a doleful but touching rhythm. Despite its remit to bring light to the tragic issue of 'cluster suicides', Berry's film is not about that as much as it is about two teenagers struggling, for very different reasons to find their way in the world. As such, when they both - independently - begin to consider the most horrifying last resort, it feels genuinely earned rather than oppressive or hortative.

That is thanks, in no small part, to a couple of wonderful first-time performances from Jordanne Jones as Amy, and Dafhyd Flynn as Dylan. Initially intended as a non-fiction piece, the characters and scenarios were all workshopped in the local community and it clear to see the dividens that method has paid. Amy is the lone child of a widower (James Kelly), forced to struggle between mothering him, coping with the ramifications of his poor choices, and tentatively explore the first flutters of love. Jones plays her with such understated depth; utterly convincing both as a strong and sad young woman with agency and adrift in an child's emotional tumult. She is utterly heartbreaking when compounded disappointment begins to see her veer towards tragedy.

In a less significant, but arguably more difficult role, Flynn is equally heart-wrenching as a boy utterly lost. His silences may be because he has little to say, but they also indicate a far more elemental emptiness from he seems unable to claw his way back. His friendship with Amy gives moments of respite, but even then he seems teetering on a brink. That the other performances don't quite match these is little condemnation, and while there are bum notes and periods of poor pacing, they are never to upset the whole. The film is shot in familiar social realist tones, with elegant framing that accentuates the lyricism and poignancy as much as the gritty reality. A recurring shot of the neighbourhood kids sitting in a half-height underpass frames their inner confinement in a film that proves both narratively and emotionally adept, and does justice to its fine cause.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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