The Quiet Girl ★★★1/2
Availability: In theaters beginning February 24; for future streaming, see JustWatch here.
The Quiet Movie
In the decade since the publication of Susan Cain’s “Quiet,” introversion has been, let’s say, normalized. It’s no longer to be understood as an unfortunate, to-be-remedied, shyness, but rather valued as another way of being in the world, one with its own virtues and benefits. There’s a hint of that in Irish director and writer Colm Bairéad’s spare and compelling film, in a late scene featuring Seán (Andrew Bennett), who offers 9-year-old “quiet girl” Cáit (Catherine Clinch) his thoughts. “Many’s the person,” he explains, “missed the opportunity to say nothing, and lost much because of it.” The voluble Pádraic of “The Banshees of Inisherin” would have done well to heed that advice.
Right, Ma (Kate Nic Chonaonaugh) with her 6th and newest baby and Da (Michael Patric) eke out a dismal, dark living in rural Ireland in the 1980s.
With that exception, the introversion that circulates in “The Quiet Girl” is of another sort. Cáit’s withdrawal into near-silence, into the role of observer, is presented here as a consequence of having grown up in a loveless, and poor, family. Her father (Da, Michael Patric) lacks affection not only for Cáit but for his wife and their other 4 children. He plays the horses, drinks to excess, and fails to get the hay in on time. Ma (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) has a certain fondness for infants (a good thing, since she’s again pregnant) but there’s nothing left for the older children—no affection, and, thanks to ne’er-do-well Da, not enough to eat. It’s 1981, and the economy, the Church, and anti-abortion laws keep them poor and desperate.
Pretty, blue-eyed Cáit is played to low-affect, direct perfection by the now 13-year-old Catherine Clinch.
At school, Cáit is bullied (and unprotected by her older sisters) and inadequate (she barely knows how to read), and she sometimes reacts to that environment by escaping—hence her nickname, the “Wanderer.” Pretty, blue-eyed Cáit is played to low-affect, direct perfection by the now 13-year-old Clinch, who brings to the role the requisite interiority, complemented by the equally significant qualities of awareness and perceptiveness.
Seán (Andrew Bennett) comes to appreciate the quiet child's (Cáit, Catherine Cinch) presence.
The sparse dialog puts us in the midst of The Quiet Family. And watching The Quiet Movie.
A plot emerges when Da and Ma, burdened by the pregnancy and the onset of a summer with no school for the brood, decide to ship off their youngest, Cáit, to a childless couple, the Cinnsealachs: a cousin, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley), and her husband Seán, who works a dairy farm. Some of what follows is a trifle too predictable. “If you were mine, I wouldn’t send you to live with strangers,” Eibhlín says to herself. The new household is clean and bright and comfortable (all emphasized by the Kodachrome-like cinematography, which aligns with the film’s historical setting), and food is always being eaten or prepared or offered, a stark contrast to the grey, cramped kitchen of Cáit’s home, where there’s only a piece of bread for the school lunch boxes. Eibhlín is kind, caring, nurturant, physically loving, and solicitous with Cáit—some may think overly so. Seán is at first stand-offish, though he begrudgingly comes around to appreciate the quiet child’s presence in the household. Neither Eibhlín nor Seán say much; with Cáit added to the mix, the sparse dialog puts us in the midst of The Quiet Family. And watching The Quiet Movie.
A quiet bond slowly develops between Seán (Andrew Bennett) and Cáit (Catherine Cinch).
In a moment heavy with metaphor, Cáit watches Seán bottle feed a heifer—not with mother’s milk, but with powdered-milk formula.
We see Cáit emerge from her protective shell, if only here and there (she smiles for the first time about halfway through the film), in a series of brief takes that are characteristic of the production. With Eibhlín or Seán, she is taught to assist with the chores: cooking, vacuuming, ironing, going to the well for water, sweeping out the cow barn. In a moment heavy with metaphor, she watches Seán bottle feed a heifer—not with mother’s milk, but with powdered-milk formula.
“There are no secrets in this house,” Eibhlín tells Cáit soon after her arrival.
“There are no secrets in this house,” Eibhlín tells Cáit soon after her arrival. That can’t be true, of course, or Eibhlín wouldn’t have felt the need to say it. And it’s the gradual unraveling of her comment that provides the film with a back story that helps the viewer understand why Eibhlín and Seán respond to Cáit’s presence as they do, producing just enough mystery and tension to keep at bay the concern that the story’s trajectory is too obvious and the developing relationships just a tad cloying. Hints abound—the suitcase with Cáit’s clothes that is never removed from the trunk of her father’s car, the wallpaper in her foster bedroom, the frequent trips to the well, Cáit and Seán bottle-feeding the calf. Then the past that shapes the present is starkly revealed in an unlikely scene, triggered when the normally circumspect Eibhlín inexplicably agrees to allow Cáit to go off with a cruel and malicious woman—the neighborhood gossip.
Eibhlín's (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) and Seán's (Andrew Bennett) kitchen is as bright as Ma's and Da's is dark. Cáit (Catherine Cinch), here with the childless couple, participates in the family's daily life, in a way she does not in her own home.
Bairéad’s screenplay is adapted from the now best-selling novel by Claire Keegan, “Foster,” itself expanded from a New Yorker story. Although Bairéad’s work has been primarily in television, this small film broke through to achieve a 2023 Oscar nomination for Best International Feature Film. Unlike recent films told, as is this one, from a child’s eye view—"Petite Maman” and “Aftersun”—“The Quiet Girl” is the story of a vulnerable, powerless child, not that of a child trying to understand her damaged parent.
The film will end along with summer and the arrival of Ma’s new baby. The final scene has its Hollywood moment, set up, as such moments should be, by earlier scenes. We were grateful for it, and touched, but also painfully aware that although Cáit had changed, it was hard to imagine what good could come from her return to her “real” family. Let’s just say that director Bairéad knew how to capture our ambivalence. One word, repeated twice, tells the story.
Director: Colm Bairéad
Starring: Catherine Clinch, Andrew Bennett, Carrie Crowley, Michael Patric, Kate Nic Chonaonaigh, Marion O'Dwyer
Language: Irish Gaelic, subtitled in English, and English
Runtime: 94 minutes
Oscar Nominations: 2023 Best International Feature Film (Ireland)
Other Awards: 23 wins and 28 other nominations