Review: Oscar-Nominated The Quiet Girl Explores Family, Love and the Power of Secrets

The first-ever film in the Irish language to be nominated (or even short-listed) for an Academy Award for Best International Feature, writer/director Colm Bairéad’s The Quiet Girl (based on the story “Foster” by Claire Keegan) is the story of gentle, bordering on fragile, Cáit (Catherine Clinch) a nine-year-old outcast even among her own family members (of which there are many). Growing up in rural Ireland circa 1981, Cáit lives in a kind of abject terror both at school and under her own roof. Her school mates and siblings bully her; and her parents aren’t much better. Her always-pregnant mother (Máthair Cháit) is too busy worrying about whatever current infant needs her attention, while her alcoholic father (Athair Cháit) seems to be the bane of the entire family’s existence, with his gambling, philandering, and general self-loathing. Cáit wets the bed frequently, which makes her brothers and sisters despise her for being one more problem for the family to deal with.

As summer begins, and just before her mother is about to give birth once again, Cáit’s parents send her off to spend the season with her mother’s cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crewley) and her husband Seán (Andrew Bennett), who run a dairy farm about three hours away. Her father forgets to take her suitcase out of the car when he delivers her, so Cáit is literally dropped on their doorstep with only the dirty clothes on her back and memories of her over-crowded, dysfunctional, impoverished family crowding her head. But something remarkable happens on the farm: the couple actually cares for her like she’s their own beloved child, and before long, Cáit begins to thrive and embrace farm living and the local community like she grew up there. Although she has grown up effectively hiding in plain sight from those that would torment her, here, she discovers that simple, unconditional caring is all that she needed to feel human.

We suspect things will not stay perfect almost from the beginning. The woman of the house is almost too eager to have Cáit there, while the man seems distant and uncertain about the whole arrangement. Although Eibhlin insists that there are no secrets in their home and that Cáit can ask or tell them anything, it turns out one rather large secret is kept from Cáit, and it threatens to damage the idilic dynamic irreparably. And Cáit soon learns that even in this seemingly perfect environment, there are always envious neighbors eager to spill each other’s secrets for no reason other than to cause turmoil.

Filmmaker Bairéad isn’t interested in easy answers or wrapping things up neatly as the film winds down. Although Cáit doesn’t exactly know when or if her parents will bring her home, the longer she stays with these relatives, the more she becomes attached and doesn’t want to leave. Some of the most touching moments in The Quiet Girl are watching Seán warm up to his new foster daughter as he teaches her how to work on the farm and watches her take to it like a natural. But the filmmaker’s best trick is that the more our hearts warm watching this youngster blossom, the more we dread what comes next for her. It’s a powerful, sustained feeling and the payoff is almost more than a normal heart can handle. Absolutely worthy of its Oscar nomination, this film is well worth seeking out.

The Quiet Girl is now playing in select theaters, including AMC River East 21, and rolling out to additional venues in the coming weeks.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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