Taking the glass half-full approach nets the biggest return in entertainment for Irish drama Glassland, despite the fact that the aggressively downcast little film tries to send viewers into a solemn haze at every turn. Focusing on the out-of-control addiction issues suffocating a small family of two, Glassland‘s scant but scathing 90-minute runtime is impossible to survive unmarked.
It’s an oppressive subject matter, but the movie never feels fully equipped to deal with it in any sort of novel way; Glassland decides to take the path most traveled by addiction-centric narratives and edges out ever-so-slightly on top through sheer force of will. Writer/director Gerard Barrett’s script has just enough moments of levity and positivity to grasp onto, thanks to his serious treatment of the issue and his characters, that while Glassland may not approach the level of indelibility won by similarly themed dramas, it at least avoids the pratfalls of lesser fare: it’s never for a second boring.
That’s thanks mostly to its two leads. John (Jack Reynor) is a taxi driver living in squalor in Dublin, Ireland, with his alcoholic mother, Jean (Toni Collette). One night when John returns home, he finds Jean passed out with vomit strewn all over her bed; the clinical assuredness with which he carries her first to the couch and then to a car on a trip to the hospital makes it easy to see that the two have done this dance a few times before.
When John isn’t babysitting his mom or recording one of her expletive-laden booze-searching rants, he’s hanging out with friend Shane (Will Poulter), or driving an increasingly suspicious amount of young women to questionable locations. But it’s Jean and John’s core relationship that holds Glassland together, and Barrett’s scabrous, stripped-down dialogue fuels the most satisfying sections of the movie.
Colette does great in Glassland‘s showier role, making her alcoholic alter ego feel believably shattered for the simple, dumb reasons she gives to her sickness, namely that John’s dad left her after she gave birth to John’s mentally challenged brother Kit (Harry Nagle), whom she never visits. One of two remarkable scenes in the movie, when Jean relinquishes all of her ghosts to John after a boozy solo dance party, she spews one of Barrett’s most cutting lines. “I don’t hate Kit,” she admits, wine in hand. “I just find it hard to love him.”
Reynor plays off such devastating lines with practiced ease; like the hospital gauntlet, it’s clear John has been here much before. But in a movie dealing with such dim issues, his steadfast and coolheaded responses in the face of his mom’s destruction are nearly as much an indictment of the damage of alcoholism as Collette’s own doomed heroine. Endearing from the get-go, John’s unquenchable moral compass could have resulted in a wet blanket of a character, but Reynor’s charm and steely facade layer him with mysterious pathos.
He gets a lot out of forlorn, disconnected gazes when someone else is going on about the severity of the issue his mom faces – or simply watching with simultaneous pity and hope as she dances to Soft Cell – but Barrett also gives him moments to let his rage out. In the second truly remarkable scene in Glassland, John attempts to persuade Jean to get out of his car and enter a local AA meeting. Upon her refusal, his guttural, animalistic reaction is as much a slap in the face for Jean as it is for anyone watching.
In that sequence, as in the rest of the movie, Barrett wrings effective tension out of simplistic, steadfast direction. The camera doesn’t flourish or pan during John’s blow up, which enhances it. Some stylistic choices in regards to long silent stretches and overly languid sequencing issues early on threaten to tip Glassland into trying-too-hard territory, but once Reynor and Colette get going, the movie doesn’t let up.
Unfortunately, as Glassland winds down, it doesn’t have the appropriate smack of truth promised by its early scenes. That glass half-full approach is easy to grasp by the time the credits roll, and it mostly avoids any feeling of an overtly pat Hollywood happy ending, but it also never feels like it amounts to much. It’s a movie that, while packing two locked-and-loaded performances and a few grab-a-kleenex scenes, just kind of happens.
Shane gets a subplot about an ex-girlfriend and son then disappears on a backpacking trip, while Jean is the crux of the middle section but wafts in and out of other parts of the movie, I guess appropriate given her drunkard character. Most grievous is John’s taxi service, which gets some far-too-late hints at criminal-level burdens for the hero, with a head-scratcher of a denouement and only piquing interest with about two scenes left in the movie.
Unlike its canned description, this isn’t a crime drama about a guy who threatens his own life to earn the money to help out his mom; it’s simply a familial drama with all of the necessary dysfunctional characters. That’s a low-key hook that mostly plays right into Glassland‘s unshowy execution, which is just unnerving enough to overwhelm someone with a personal connection to these issues. For a movie shooting for quotidian realism, the fact that it warrants a trigger warning might be the highest praise I could give.
Two rock-steady central performances and a handful of gut-punch scenes raise Glassland above its lingering levels of aggressive despondency.