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Non-Review Review: Kissing Candice

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2018.

Kissing Candice is a vivid and confident theatrical debut. If only that confidence were in any way earned.

Kissing Candice is clumsy, indulgent, over-signified and convinced of its own profundity.

Talk about your red lights.

In some ways, Aoife McArdle’s theatrical debut recalls Ryan Gosling’s work on Lost River, his own theatrical debut from 2014. As Gosling did with Lost River, McArdle constructs Kissing Candice as a series of homages to better, more competent directors. Indeed, it is hard to tell where McArdle’s own style begins and where her cinematic references end, somewhere in a hazy cocktail of neon-drenched extreme close-ups drifting into and out of focus editted in such a way as to disorient the audience.

As with Lost River, David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn are strong influences on Kissing Candice. As with Lost River, these influences serve as a cautionary tale; a reminder that the skill of both Lynch and Refn cannot be reduced to a set of signifiers or a neat visual shorthand. To be fair to McArdle, Kissing Candice works best when it is emulating Lynch’s fevered dreams. The introductory sequence, which plays out the bulk of the movie in symbolism, is the strongest sequence in the film. It arrives with a confidence that the following one hundred minutes do little to justify.

Not quite knocking it out of the park.

Nicolas Winding Refn is also a heavy influence on Kissing Candice, particularly in terms of editting and composition. Kissing Candice is a pulpy noir film infused with religious imagery and shot like a horror film. The characters are repeatedly bathed in neon light, their skin taking on an unearthly glow of primary or secondary colours. There is little actually articulated, the film preferring to linger on extreme close-ups of its characters faces in an attempt to create something approaching authenticity in this hyperstylised wonderland.

Although they are undoubtedly the most obvious influences on the film, McArdle’s cinematic frame of reference extends beyond Lynch and Refn. Late in the film, a sequence set at Halloween transitions from a reference to Donnie Darko to an homage to one of the most memorable scenes in The Dark Knight. While these references never feel earned, and only invite negative comparisons, they do at least affirm that Christopher Nolan is a bona fides auteur who just happens to make blockbuster films.

“We are tonight’s entertainment.”

However, style can only go so far. Kissing Candice is a convincing imitation of form. However, like Lost River, the film doesn’t understand that there needs to be a solid foundation upon which this auteur aesthetic is built. Kissing Candice is a film of two halves. In its first half, it is a relatively straightforward slice of life drama about a young girl coming of age in a border community with a tenuous grip on reality. In the second half, it is a relatively generic chase movie in which the protagonists find themselves on the run for their lives.

There is undoubtedly interesting material here, but Kissing Candice never actually develops any of its core ideas. Instead, Kissing Candice over-signifies these kernels of theme. Sandwiched between all of these homages to better films are pseudo-profound metaphors for all manner of important ideas; emerging teenage sexuality, the legacy of the Troubles, the strong overlap between religion and violence in the Irish borderlands. There are cleer things that could be done with these ideas, particularly in the context of Irish cinema.

Green spaces.

However, Kissing Candice instead of developing or exploring these ideas, Kissing Candice simply opts to repeat them ad nauseam. Kissing Candice never met an allegory that it couldn’t run into the ground, to the point that even initially engaging and appealing metaphors become exhausting and depressing. The film’s symbolism quickly becomes suffocating and overwhelming, as if the movie is screaming about its own importance and insight into a mega-phone over and over and over.

The problem with this approach is most apparent at the climax, when the two lead characters find themselves on the run. They seek sanctuary in an abandoned church. (SANCTUARY? Get it?! It’s a church thing.) They stop and stay overnight, despite being on the run. While there, one character confesses his darkest sin, which the movie has all but overtly stated repeatedly to this point. (CONFESSION? Get it?! It’s a church thing.) Then, later on, the film includes the two characters in a confessional. (BECAUSE HE JUST CONFESSED? How do you not get this?)

A window to the soul.

This would be horrendously clumsy allegorical storytelling under any circumstances, but the film decides not to have the character make the confession while in the confessional, because then at least the blunt metaphor. Instead, the film decides to put the characters in the confessional after the confession. As a result, what would otherwise be one scene of strained and laboured symbolism instead becomes two scenes of strained and laboured symbolism. This is par for the course with Kissing Candice, which means that this sort of obvious symbolism is also interminable.

This is just the most obvious example. The film features a background mystery about “what happened to Caleb”, a child from the area. It is quite apparent to anybody who understands narrative logic “what happened to Caleb”, particularly when Kissing Candice repeatedly cuts to a gang of youths up to no good with young boys in the area. However, Kissing Candice keeps trying to build a sense of dread while remaining somewhat ambiguous, which is just frustrating. By the time that Kissing Candice actually reveals “what happened to Caleb”, the audience knows most of the story.

Light relief.

However, just in case the audience doesn’t get the way in which this child abuse might be tied to broader issues of child abuse in a larger Irish context, Kissing Candice goes all in on the symbolism. This gang of violent and predatory young men brand themselves with crosses, to reinforce the connection between organised religion and such violence in these communities. Naturally, this then leads to the laboured church symbolism later in the film. Kissing Candice spends what feels like an eternity literalising a metaphor that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri handled in a monologue.

Kissing Candice is a film driven by imagery and metaphor, so it is pointless to complain about plot holes or gaps – to observe that there is apparently only one place to hide in the local countryside that just happens to be a church for metaphorical reasons, or to wonder why apparently only one local law enforcement official is investigating a headline-grabbing missing child case, or to remark on how the countryside is eerily empty until our protagonists need a car. At the same time, the plot over-extends itself with narrative cul de sacs and dead ends; one of the most frustrating involves guns in a post box.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s influence is a Drive-ing force.

In some ways, Kissing Candice is a beautiful film. Indeed, it’s revealing just how much of the film ended up in the promotional reel for the Irish Film Board that is shown before every film in the Audi International Dublin Film Festival. Indeed, divorced from plot or theme, these images are often quite striking and evocative. In some ways, it feels like there is great music video buried somewhere in Kissing Candice, a narrative form where a guy in a wolf costume warning a teenage girl that she is in immediate danger doesn’t feel laboured or obvious.

Unfortunately, Kissing Candice is not a promotional advertisement or a music video. It is a feature film. And a deeply disappointing one at that.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

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