Teen romantic comedies can be hard to invest in emotionally, particularly as one sinks further into decrepit, cynical adulthood. Whether or not the guy gets the girl in time for senior prom seems pretty inconsequential when you know they’ll probably be torn asunder by college. The good ones have something a little more lasting and internal at stake: Youthful crushes come and go, but you only truly come of age once. A gentle, bittersweet Irish charmer that’s more thoughtful than its generic title, “Dating Amber” finds such stakes as it follows two closeted teens who pretend to be in love, thus deflecting the speculation of classmates and concerned parents. What we root for isn’t just the kids’ tender (if strictly platonic) relationship, but their threatened senses of self: With light, loving strokes, writer-director David Freyne etches lives on the precipice of ruin.
British critic Tim Robey once coined the term “gerund whimsy” to describe the romcom titling formula that welds a vague participle to a Christian name in pursuit of general quirkiness: “Chasing Amy,” “Serving Sara,” “Raising Helen,” and so on. “Dating Amber” was originally dubbed “Beards,” a blunter, more evocative title closer to the spirit of the blunt colloqualisms that color Freyne’s script. (If you don’t know the randy Irish definition of “shifting,” you definitely will by the end of the film’s tight 92 minutes.) If the title change was encouraged to lend the film broad, cheery appeal, consider the job done: It’s been scooped up by Amazon Prime and branded as a kind of translatlantic answer to “Love, Simon,” though Freyne’s film has a bigger, more melancholic heart to it.
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Sure enough, since its U.K. release on Amazon earlier in June, “Dating Amber” has been keenly championed on social media by a captive, youthful audience — surely overlapping to some extent with viewers who watched winsome lead Fionn O’Shea in his standout supporting turn in TV’s “Normal People” earlier this spring. Freyne’s film acts as a star-confirming vehicle for both O’Shea and Lola Petticrew, fresh off her eye-catching film debut in the Irish indie “A Bump Along the Way.” Together, they have the kind of easy, intuitive chemistry that turns a potentially pat, cutesy logline into a credible human dynamic.
That interplay carries the film through some less convincing, more sitcom-level plot points. Many of those center on the burning, plainly doomed ambition of scrawny, anxious 17-year-old Eddie (O’Shea) to follow the combat-booted footsteps of his dad Ian (Barry Ward) into the Irish army — in part to persuade himself of his regimented masculinity, and in part because his glum hometown in County Kildare offers few exciting alternatives to shy, unremarkable lads who daren’t admit (to themselves, much less to others) that they’re gay. If the film was set in the 1980s instead of 1995 — cue a lot of handpicked vintage indie-pop, and dusty neon highlights in Ruairi O’Brien’s attractive lensing — you’d expect Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy” to pump out over the soundtrack.
Eddie’s in aching need of an intervention, which arrives in the plainspoken, pastel-haired form of school outcast Amber (Petticrew), who’s just biding her time until she can escape to London, become a punk and realize her dream of “opening an anarchist bookshop — with franchise potential.” He isn’t like the other boys, she isn’t like the other girls: In the cruel way that otherwise dull-witted bullies pick up essential truths about their victims, both are taunted for being gay, as they wearily protest otherwise.
It’s Amber, finally, who points out that this mutual bind makes them an ironically well-matched couple, minus the sex part. Why not just date until school’s out, to get everyone off their backs? It’s a neat solution that Freyne is right to make untidy in execution, as the friends gradually find themselves coming out at different paces: While Amber is quicker to accept her homosexuality, finding unexpected companionship with Dublin student Sarah (Lauryn Canny), Eddie remains longer and deeper in denial, still counting on impending military service to make the problem go away.
If “Dating Amber” navigates this tricky double arc with care and delicacy, not all its subplots are quite on the same level. A running parallel narrative centered on the tetchy marriage between the oft-absent Ian and Eddie’s jaded mom Hannah (Sharon Horgan, underused but wonderfully tart) never connects as poignantly as it should with the historical backdrop of Ireland’s lifting its divorce ban in 1995 — in part because Ian’s character vacillates between flawed, human patriarch and macho-man caricature. A strand involving a potential kindred spirit in Eddie’s cadet-training group, meanwhile, is all too conveniently dispatched: Blithely and wittily as “Dating Amber” dramatizes the complex identity crises of its lovable leads, it could make more time for the pain of those around them. Yet the story at its center is a special one, and still a rarity in a genre unaccustomed to presenting LGBTQ lives in bright emotional detail, rather than as colorful comic sidebars. Finally, Freyne has given us a romantic comedy in which the gay best friends are the leads, and it’s all the richer for it.
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