When confronted with the task of adapting words to accompany numerous canonical Irish airs, bard Thomas Moore stated that “The poet who would follow the various sentiments which they express, must feel and understand that rapid fluctuation of spirits, that unaccountable mixture of gloom and levity, which composes the character of my countrymen, and has deeply tinged their music” (1850: 216). Moore’s dualistic conception of Irishness manifests itself in a schizophrenic national cultural impulse which places tragedy and light-heartedness side-by-side. It is the same schismatic, cheerful melancholia which can be found, for example, in tonally inconsistent Irish institution The Late Late Show (RTE 1962-), which as part of the same Friday night entertainment platform is permitted to broadcast comedic segments featuring the likes of a celebrity impressionist in one slot and an interview with a family recently bereaved by suicide in another (RTE 2009). This inclination buried within the national character also means that even the broadest of Irish comic capers, The Young Offenders, is imbued with a hint of sobering social realism. As announced by the caption placed over a panoramic wide-shot of Cork City at its opening, the film is inspired by real-life events, specifically that of Ireland’s largest ever cocaine seizure which occurred when a boat carrying the drug capsized off the coast of West Cork in 2007. The story follows two dunderheaded working-class teenagers, Conor (Alex Murphy) and Jock (Chris Walley), who upon hearing that one of these bales of cocaine is missing, set off on a coming of age bicycle trip to locate the drug while pursued by the petty-crime obsessed Sergeant Healy (Dominic MacHale). The fact that the film is grounded in reality, albeit tenuously, is responsible for its most comedic and deceptively affecting moments which grow out of its truthful sense of place and its well-observed sense of character, even if these elements exist amid a host of hackneyed gags. Indeed, the film too often aims for the cheapest laugh, its aesthetic reflecting writer/director Peter Foott’s origins in broad TV comedy, symptoms of which can also be found in the manner that its story beats are hammered home by its at times overbearing soundtrack. Yet, through the barrage of surface noise emerges a surprisingly deft humanity and organic comedy which at least intermittently belies the brash and unsophisticated pitch of the narrative.
The protagonists’ buddy relationship and their relationships with their respective families are wisely placed at the core of the film which serves to anchor its farce in emotional reality. Both victims of parental bereavement, the duo are described as being from “Shitty one-parent families”, with Conor living and working with his fishmonger mother Mairead (Hilary Rose) and Jock sharing a house with his abusive, alcoholic father (Michael Sands). As is often the case with buddy films, their bond is drawn in “bromantic” terms and is largely played for easy laughs, but as evidenced by a scene in which Conor teaches Jock how to swim, Foott also transmits an unexpectedly poignant portrait of teenage friendship, in this case by intercutting their interaction with images of shared formative moments. The fraternal wholesomeness of this relationship is refreshing with the pair’s innocence apparent in how they mythologize their caper, elevating their pursuit of the missing Cocaine to a mythical, childlike search for “Treasure”. Thus, as the film progresses it becomes evident that the cat-and-mouse game they play with Sergeant Healy exemplifies the ritual, myth-making and brotherhood through which they escape the powerlessness of their home life and the drudgery of working-class masculinity’s often limiting and corrosive milieu.
Maleness in The Young Offenders is predominantly represented by maladjusted characters such as the obsessive workaholic Sergeant Healy, and the drunk, angry farmer (Pascal Scott) who at one point harbours the “on the lam” duo. The farmer can be interpreted as part of a lineage of drunken Irish archetypes, illustrated by the fact that he remains unnamed. However, when revealed to be estranged from his adult children he is shown to possess an underlying loneliness in common with Sergeant Healy, a concept which is addressed in a montage which ties these flawed male figures together. Conor’s voiceover alludes to both characters as locked in a cycle of isolation leading them to bury their emotions in work and alcohol respectively before he explicitly stresses the importance of expressivity through “Picking up the phone”. By emphasizing the power of human connection and communication, Conor and Jock’s friendship, itself built upon idiotic repartee, is shown to be all that separates them from these dysfunctional representatives of masculinity. This notion is then reinforced by Jock’s recourse to alcohol, his behaviour echoing that of his father (who is characterised in undeniably archetypal terms), following his inevitable, inevitably temporary, alienation from Conor at the end of act two. This scene cements the film’s leitmotif which indirectly posits social marginalisation as a root cause of social problems while simultaneously pathologizing Jock by giving credence to the idea of the existence of inherent or inherited anti-social tendencies among working-class males. Thus, The Young Offenders both embraces and rejects the Irish cultural trend in which anti-social behaviour among this cohort is “pathologized as a hereditary or hormonal disposition to crime, violence and drug and alcohol abuse” (O’Brien 2014: 129). Yet, as its male characters are given a modicum of psychology, by the reductive standards of the genre at least, the film should be interpreted as a clumsy progression away from archetypal characterizations of working-class Irish masculinity.
Similarly, Conor’s Mother is another iteration of the “Irish Mammy”, her tough love an undoubted source for good in her son’s life with her dominant maternal presence in the narrative displayed in how she adopts Jock at its conclusion, thereby formalising the protagonists’ brotherhood. Although, a former teenage mother who has a contentious relationship with her son and who struggles with the idea of motherhood, Mairead is also portrayed in a manner that humanises and subverts the “Mammy” archetype. This is exemplified by a scene late in the film in which she and Conor highlight the other’s failings while admitting their own. Their exchange undermines the familiar concept of doting yet dogmatic maternal Irishness and therefore in his characterisation of Mairead, the filmmaker can once again be seen to complicate while simultaneously playing into Irish archetypes. As Conor and his Mother obliquely express their love for each other across the kitchen table their dialogue is cloaked in a palpable warmth and effortless wit, and it is in these moments, when language overtakes the pantomime which prevails throughout, that Foott’s film, as well as being at its most alive is also at its most humorous.
This notion extends to Conor and Jock as a comedy double-act as the film thrives on the occasions when its well-worn plot is secondary and when its main characters are in dialogue with each other. The music of their Cork accented Hiberno-English in these largely improvised scenes (Brady 2016) is central to their functioning as sporadic comedic highlights with Murphy and Walley’s naturalistic riffing a joy to behold. One such scene details Jock, who while conversing with Conor draws parallels between his relationship with nemesis Sergeant Healy and that of “De Niro and Pacino” in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). Jock then proceeds to rehearse his performance while receiving acting critique from Conor, prior to attempting to recreate the L.A. set films mid-narrative meeting between its competing cop and criminal in a Cork cafe. It is a hilarious (but within the film, unfortunately rare) occasion when the quality of the actors’ delivery is complemented by equally sharp comedy writing at script level. In combining these elements, the sequence can be considered as the film’s zenith; a canny intertextual, self-reflexive flourish that is not merely an excuse for arch cinephilia but an ingredient that is plausibly congruent with Jock’s cultural diet, adding colour to his character while also creating a hilarious and thoroughly satisfying meta-cinematic moment.
On the other hand, the film’s self-aware tendencies are often responsible for its more tired, uninspiring scenes, such as its denouement in which virtually the entire cast of characters descend on Conor’s house for a farcical kitchen standoff. This scene crystallises the playful, faux deconstructionist tone, now painfully ever-present in comedic Irish narratives including the anachronistic Mrs Browns Boys (BBC 2011-), a text which, thankfully, even at its most stale and puerile Foott’s film towers above. Yet, the filmmaker still strains every sinew to wring broad laughs from the narrative such as in this concluding sequence which only serves to obstruct some of the organic humour which flows from Conor and Jock’s interaction. Foott’s penchant for creating moments rather than grounded, fully formed scenes, made him a perfect choice as director of the music video for the Rubberbandits “Horse Outside” (2010), providing the satirical, socially conscious group with their sole mainstream success. Thus, it can be argued that the film functions as “Rubberbandits-lite” in its focus on Irish urban youth with Foott substituting Limerick City for Cork and the articulate colloquial poetry of the bandits’ patter for the poetry of Conor and Jock’s colloquial inarticulacy. The incidental and colloquial are this film’s strength but these elements and their associated potential for social commentary and truthful, nuanced comedy are often squandered by the desire to entertain the widest possible audience.
While it would be inaccurate to suggest that The Young Offenders was conceived as anything other than a broad comedy, it is reflective of a certain conception of Irishness, a notion that is reinforced by its surprise success at the Irish Box office – taking in over €1 Million. (Scannain 2017) Its awkward, alternatingly broadly farcical/social realist tone perhaps reflects the national character in a way in which a navel-gazing, conscious attempt at a state of the nation could not. While the film’s characteristically Irish nature can be seen to contribute to its interesting alternating timbre, it is also responsible for another Irish tendency in that it overestimates just how much “craic” is to be found within it. Yet, the sporadically nuanced moments conjured by its lead actors and which grow out of its dualistic tone, serve to elevate it above other popular, banal Irish capers such as 2004’s Man About Dog (Paddy Breathnach). As Thomas Moore put it “Even in [its] liveliest strains we find some melancholy note intrude … which throws shade as it passes, and makes even mirth interesting” (1850: 216). It is unfortunate, however, that the film’s distinctive minor key elements are accompanied by some majorly derivative comedy.
Brady, Tara. 2016. “How Cork Cocaine Caper The Young Offenders Struck Comedy Gold”.
The Irish Times. 16 September. http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/how-cork-cocaine-caper-the-young-offenders-struck-comedy-gold-1.2792983 [Retrieved 10 March 2017]
O’Brien, Cormac. 2014. “Sons of the Tiger: Performing Neoliberalism, Post-Feminism, and Masculinity in ‘Crisis’ in Contemporary Irish Theatre”. Masculinity and Irish Popular Culture: Tiger’s Tales. Ed. Conn Holohan and Tony Tracy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 126-141.
Moore, Thomas. 1850. The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore. 1st ed. London: Bliss & Sands Company.
RTE. 2009. RTE Television – The Late Late Show – 25 September 2009. [online] Available at: http://www.rte.ie/tv/latelate/20090925.html [Retrieved 10 Mar. 2017]
Scannain. 2017. #IrishFilm: The Young Offenders released on DVD this Friday, March 3rd – Scannain. [online] Available at: http://scannain.com/irish/young-offenders-dvd-release/ [Retrieved 10 March 2017]