Tuesday 2 June 2020

Smalltown boy: "Dating Amber"

Dating Amber (formerly known as Beards) is an Irish teen comedy being sold as "in the style of Sex Education", in the same way Spotify bills those karaoke versions of unstreamable classics as being "in the style of" the original. It stakes out a similar neck of the woods (trailer park backdrop, hormonal classrooms) and offers much that is thematically familar, if you were looking for familiarity in this especially uncertain moment. The downside is that it struggles for some while to shrug off a marked feeling of secondhandness, as if the actors had shown up wearing hand-me-down uniform on sets only just departed by the last project working through these self-same adolescent traumas. Its biggest tweak, suggested by that alternate title, is that its meek bicycling hero, Fionn O'Shea's Eddie, is secretly gay, a dangerous state of affairs for anyone attending a provincial school in the mid-1990s. His parents (Sharon Horgan and Barry Ward) have had the bright idea of packing their boy off to Army training to straighten him out; in the meantime, Eddie takes matters into his own hands by recruiting turquoise-haired, Kathleen Hanna-revering school misfit Amber (Lola Petticrew) to pose as the Cheryl to his Michael Barrymore, the Renate to his Elton John.

What results is another demonstration of how sheer amiability can carry a film so far. Dating Amber is as one of those puppyish teens who are so desperate to look, talk and act like someone else that they become oddly endearing; you feel less inclined to box the ears of anyone involved than to ruffle their hair and send them on their way. (You may even find yourself forgiving those turns of phrase - "what the actual fuck?", some fraught discussion of safe spaces - which really weren't in common circulation at the moment of Britpop.) The jittery O'Shea and faux-sophisticated Petticrew (who has some of the great Gwyneth Keyworth's self-possession) work up a nice, increasingly potent chemistry, and you sense writer-director David Freyne finding his authorial feet once the set-up is in place. The laughs mostly derive from the sight of two already awkward teens having to keep up the pretence of being totally hot for one another, though there's also a jolt of comedy clearly informed by life experience as these youngsters first encounter the grown-up LGBT scene. (Eddie's saucer-eyed response to a nightclub drag act is fun: "You OK, baby gay?") The sharpness - and sadness - of Sex Education's better writing is beyond a 90-minute entertainment such as this: there are disquiets between Ward and his own dad, the source of the former's slightly warped ideas about masculinity, and again between Amber and her widowed mother, but there isn't time to go too deeply into them. No denying the film's considerable reserves of charm, wit and empathy, though, and even the repetition is apparently here to help put the re- in reassurance. While watching it go through the modern teen-movie motions, you come to understand Freyne's film is part of a process - and a lineage that began in the UK with Beautiful Thing and Get Real and eventually begat the recent Love, Simon in the US - by which the movies have told young gay viewers, over and over again, that it's as OK to feel this way as it is for boys and girls to have feelings for one another. It's not doing anything greatly new, but then neither is the target audience.

Dating Amber will be available to stream via Amazon Prime from Thursday.

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