There aren’t many mood pieces in Irish cinema. There are plenty of great stories and plots full of action, drama and suspense. Yet, while some of them capture a mood, it’s never the primary goal. Kissing Candice is different. Not good or bad. Just different. It captures the apathy, violence and desperation of the disaffected Irish youth who watched their country grow, change, crumble and rise again all while it passed them by.
Candice (Ann Skelly) is a 17-year-old girl growing up somewhere in the border counties between the mid-90s and mid-2000s. After a neon lit dream she becomes obsessed with finding the young man (Ryan Lincoln) whom she kissed in it. He exists but he’s involved with a local gang that have dreams of militant grandeur while they fester in a soup of drugs and violence. Candice finds herself drawn deeper in as secrets involving a missing child and hidden guns, all while her mental illness floats to the surface.
Kissing Candice’s story barely matters because anything story-related seems to happen only at the beginning and end. Whether the film takes place over two months or two weeks I couldn’t tell you but it looks great. Steve Annis’ cinematography glides through sublime rural Ireland, soaking in the landscape in beautiful wide-open shots often lit only by distant lights or the dying sun.
In the film’s urban areas, the camera zooms in close. The emphasis put on claustrophobia and danger really hits home. Close ups highlight every characters’ degradation as the drugs, drink and the dreadful guilt take their toll.
Comparisons will be drawn to the likes of Drive, Twin Peaks and even Donnie Darko. Yet, credit is due to debut writer and director Aoife McArdle for marrying the dreamlike styles of these films with the realist nightmares of modern Irish cinema. Candice’s obvious struggles with depression, anxiety and possibly something even more severe are highlighted by various disturbing and perplexing images. Blood pooling under a bathroom door. A dog running through a school hallway. The grim, grey reality of it all intrudes so much that it feels like an Anne Enright novel is trying to consume one of McArdle’s music videos (the director previous shot Bryan Ferry and U2 promos).
Still this grim, grey reality isn’t totally oppressive. The supporting cast elevate the material beyond the Irish Drive it very much could have been. The gang of lads that hunt Candice and her dream guy Jacob in the latter half of the film are by turns sinister and sympathetic. The most aggressive of them Dermot (a shaven Joker-like Conall Keating) and Conor (Ryan McParland) have a wildness to them that goes beyond drinking cans in a field.
Yet despite the gang’s obvious morality issues and debauched hedonism I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. Irish men such as these are created and fuelled by violence and drugs, enabled by a culture ignored by a state too craven to care.
McArdle’s script only allows for glimpses at all the problems present in Kissing Candice. This is fair because there’s no way the film could tackle all of them. I know Kissing Candice is a suspense thriller but it’s also a family drama, a drug PSA, a road safety ad and for one glorious moment a Pulp Fiction tribute. It’s all of these and more with enough visual flair and dreamy longshots to be interesting long after the credits roll.
Most importantly though, Kissing Candice is a Discover Ireland ad for all those that feel caught between the mire of the past and a future that’s already out of reach.