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Non-Review Review: Metal Heart

Metal Heart is a charming and zesty coming age tale.

Written by Paul Murray and directed by Hugh O’Conor, Metal Heart owes a lot to the subgenre of female-focused teen dramedies like Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. It’s the story of Emma, a teenager awaiting her Leaving Cert results and trying to navigate the path to young adulthood, unaware of the various obstacles that stand in her path – including her own preconceptions. The (metal) heart of the film lies in the dynamic between Emma and her fraternal twin Chantal, but there are a host of other complicated dynamics for the young woman to navigate along the way.

A large part of the charm of Metal Heart comes down to the strong central cast. O’Conor has drawn together an impressive ensemble for his debut theatrical feature. The adult players include Irish film veterans Moe Dunford, Dylan Moran and Jason O’Mara. However, the best performances in Metal Heart often come from its teen performers. Jordanne Jones is remarkable in the central role of Emma. Leah McNamara does good work as Chantal. Aaron Heffernan is surprisingly affecting in the role of obligatory comic relief as Chantal’s sweet-but-dumb-as-a-bag-of-rocks boyfriend Alan.

Metal Heart has a genuine sweetness to it, which infuses and informs the film. It’s a lovely piece of Irish cinema.

To be fair, there are some rough edges. Metal Heart is a little too familiar and a little too formulaic in parts. There is a certain bluntness to how the film sets up and delivers its plot developments. There are moments when Metal Heart lacks the nuance necessary to make certain plot elements pop. This is perhaps most obvious in its handling of the character of Dan, the enigmatic failed musician who moves in next door to Chantal and Emma to take care of his dying mother. Dan inevitably becomes a pivotal character as the plot develops, initially through Emma’s musical ambitions and then in other more personal ways.

To any savvy audience members – and even to some of the characters operating within the narrative – Dan is immediately transparent. It helps that Dan is played by Moe Dunford, one of Ireland’s most striking emerging actors. Dunford is able to capture the extremes of Dan’s character, and O’Conor is able to frame him in such a way as to illustrate his dichotomy. It is very clear immediately both that Dan is unreliable at best and openly predatory at worst and that Emma would immediately be drawn to his practiced jaded exterior and cod philosophy.

As such, it feels a little heavy handed when the film goes out of its way to hammer home that point in relation to Dan through familiar devices like half-overheard conversations on the phone or framing individual sequences. At times this feels like a slight lack of confidence; as if Metal Heart doesn’t trust its cast, its director or its audience to get a solid read on the character despite the level of skill involved in the movie’s production. Then again, it is probably safer to be overly clear in such things and to avoid anything that might be considered ambiguity.

Metal Heart often paints its world in broad strokes. Metal Heart operates according to the internal logic of the teen film, which is a smart and savvy choice; that template endures for a reason. Metal Heart genuinely enjoys being a teenage film. O’Conor’s direction revels in the sort of stylised scene transitions and goofy heightened humour that are a staple of this sort of coming of age films. That said, there are moments when the film feels a little too broad, when it leans a little too heavily into the genre playbook. (To pick a small example, the film dramatically undersells the amount of rehearsal necessary to play a gig.)

These are minor problems, and they result largely from a natural earnest affection for both the characters and the genre within which the film is operating. There is a genuine tenderness to Metal Heart, a sort of empathy and compassion that is necessary for a film like this to operate. As with other exemplars of the genre, from recent hits like Booksmart to earlier examples like The Breakfast Club, there is an understanding that one of the fundamental journeys of young adulthood is a realisation that other people are more than just crude archetypes or shallow clichés.

Metal Heart is very invested in Emma. Actor Jordanne Jones grounds the film, anchoring it with commendable screen presence for an actor in her mid-teens. This is particularly impressive given how much of Metal Heart is tied up in Emma’s own insecurities and her lack of self-esteem. It takes a lot for even a veteran actor to hold the audience’s attention while playing a character who doesn’t necessarily believe that they deserve that level of attention. It’s impressive work for an actor in her first lead role in a feature.

However, while Metal Heart remains keenly focused on Emma, it is shrewd enough to understand that she is not the only character with agency. A large part of Metal Heart is given over to revealing that the characters around Emma are more complex than she – and perhaps the audience – originally allowed. This is obvious with her twin Chantal, who is initially presented as a stereotypical social media influencer. (“Just because you’re superficial, it doesn’t mean you’re nice,” Emma snipes at one point.) However, Chantal grows into a more complicated figure the more time that the film (and Emma) spends with her.

This applies – to varying degrees – to the rest of the ensemble as well. Emma gradually comes to learn that perhaps Chantal’s friends are not as shallow as she might have assumed them to be. The film even has a great deal of fun with Alan, Emma’s airhead boyfriend. Alan initially seems vapid and shallow. However, the film gradually and effectively humanises him, without ever diminishing him as a reliable source of comedic relief. Metal Heart does very well with its teenage cast, a credit to Louise Kiely and Eva Jane Gaffney.

As an aside, writer by Paul Murray and director Hugh O’Conor deserve a great deal of credit for dealing frankly with teenage sexuality, without ever seeming sensationalist or exploitative. It’s a fine line to walk, particularly in the context of the heightened stylised framework of Metal Heart. The film portrays teenage sexuality with both tact and honesty, never seeming cynical without ever seeming overly earnest. Most shrewdly, Metal Heart avoids any whiff of moral panic around the sex lives of its two leads, while also tackling the complex dynamics at work in such teenage relationships.

Metal Heart is a lovely and playful piece of work.

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