Gerard Barrett
Stars: Jack Reynor, Toni Collette
Rating: NR
2 (out of 5) Globes

An angry young man suffering through insomnia taps idly, playfully on his bedroom wall. It’s not a tour-de-force moment but it’s the kind of tiny, personable detail that marks the best parts of the tiny Irish drama “Glassland.” The film could use more minor observations like it. Alternately alive and old-hat, and eventually maddeningly vague, it doesn’t have much to recommend apart from fine acting and burnished, painterly cinematography. That may be enough. Sometimes it is.

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Part alkie saga, part mother-son drama, “Glassland” observes John (Jack Reynor), a young cabbie in a gloomy part of Dublin. He lives with his mother, Jean (Toni Collette), but only because she has a drinking problem that’s so bad she’s informed continued use may kill her. Much as it drives him mad, he’s hopelessly devoted to her betterment. During one of her outsized outbursts of screaming and dish-smashing, John calmly brandishes his mobile and videos her. We may not realize why until later, when he replays it to her when she’s sober, showing her the Jekyll to her Hyde — how someone who can be charming and funny when on the wagon can transform into another person entirely when she’s off.

It’s a moment that feels both deeply human and close to a PSA about alcoholism. This binary happens too often in “Glassland” — stock moments performed with great sensitivity and aplomb. At times it can feel like a parody of kitchen sink grunginess; other times it underplays just enough to almost distract viewers from any potential familiarity. John’s scant spare time is often spent with a local ne’er-do-well played by Will Poulter, who tempers his character’s unpleasantness with a boyish glee. (A scene where he accosts lowly video store clerks over a truant DVD rental manages to be both cruel and goofy.) Even scenes with John’s brother, Kit (Harry Nagle), who has Down syndrome and was abandoned by Jean, avoid easy pathos. 

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Writer-director Gerard Barrett keeps “Glassland” in unusually moody slice-of-life mode, but he sometimes struggles to fill up the brief length. Eventually he resorts to burning nine minutes on a monologue that needlessly explains everything. Even there the scene gives Collette a chance to strut her considerable stuff, underplaying it perfectly and not trying to sugarcoat Jean’s darker impulses. 

But the excellence of her delivery doesn’t atone for the scene’s conceptual dodginess, which is what too often mars the otherwise noble and technically accomplished film. Cinematographer Piers McGrail underlights every shot, creating images that look like digital versions of Rembrandt, only capturing grimy, grungy rooms and cityscapes. It’s a microcosm that’s quicksand to its characters, but of course they point their ills out in clunky dialogue. “Can’t do this anymore,” goes one of John’s repeated lines, as though that wasn’t clearly evident. Hopefully Barrett’s a novice talent getting rid of his worst impulses while tending to his strengths. There’s a lot of them.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge