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Non-Review Review: Dating Amber

Dating Amber is a sweet, if perhaps overly familiar, coming of age story.

Dating Amber has a pretty compelling hook. Eddie and Amber are both gay teenagers growing up in rural Ireland during the mid-nineties. The country has just decriminalised sodomy, and finds itself in the midst of a highly divisive and contentious referendum on divorce. Against this backdrop, Amber hits on a clever idea to avoid the scrutiny of her classmates. She and Eddie will pretend to be a couple, so that they can both present as heterosexual long enough for Amber to escape this suffocating environment.

Vicious cycles.

It’s a very straightforward but compelling premise. It evokes the set-up of something like Easy A, tapping into the youthful anxieties of teenage life, and combines it with the increasingly progressive and diverse entries into the genre like Love Simon or Handsome Devil. Writer and director David Freyne draws from his own teenage experiences to add a level of authenticity, and the film is elevated by two winsome performances by Lola Petticrew and Fionn O’Shea.

The film lacks the delicate tonal balance that is necessary to elevate a teenage coming of age story from a charming affair to a classic of the genre, swerving too dramatically from its playful and cheeky opening premise to an overly earnest and sincere final stretch. It allows suffers slightly from a heavy reliance on formula, hitting most of the marks expected of a story like this, but never really finding a way to push past those conventions into something more profound or insightful. However, Dating Amber is an appealing and engaging entry into the genre.

Couple of friends.

Dating Amber captures a certain experience of growing up in an appealing heightened way. Eddie is introduced cycling through the Curragh with his headphones on, oblivious to the world around him. Eddie misses a warning that the area is being used for training drills with live ammunition, leading to a sequence of Eddie riding through gunfire without any real sense of what is happening. It’s a lovely establishing moment for the character, but one that also feels like a very sensitive to the challenges of being a teenager. Every day feels like a bike ride through bullets.

The film contains a lot of really well-observed details about what it was like to be a teenager in rural Ireland, from the cynical use the cinema as a “romantic” rendezvous through to the repetitive and uncreative graffiti that teenage boys are likely to reiterate over just about any flat surface. There’s something very honest in the film’s snapshot of cheap cider in giant plastic bottles, of the schoolyard gossip machine, of just how much time rural teenagers spent sitting around on benches. Freyne has talked about drawing from his own teenage memories, and that shines through.

Steady Eddie.

That said, there is a certain clumsiness in the broader strokes of Dating Amber. To pick one small example that’s indicative of a larger trend, the film’s sketch of 1995 feels like a cartoon. The film’s portrayal of the peculiarities of Irish life is fairly reasonable – the political indoctrination at a young age, the sexual education videos that have a nun on hand to explain how God is part of the act of intercourse. However, the attempts to shoehorn in pop culture references to add an air of authenticity illustrate some of the problems with the film.

To watch Dating Amber is to believe that the only thing happening in pop culture in 1995 was the rivalry between Blur and Oasis. The film latches on to this pop cultural divide with a monomaniacal fixation. A classmate complains that Eddie is “looking like the sh!t version of that guy from Blur.” Amber herself bemoans the state of pop cultural discourse, “People are all over Oasis.” Teenagers fight in the schoolyard over the argument. It is a joke, but it is also something that the movie uses in an effort to establish authenticity and to ground the story in a particular place and time.

Their marriage is fatigued.

The issue is not that teenagers weren’t fighting over Oasis and Blur in Irish schoolyards in 1995, it’s that this was not the sum total of everything that was being discussed, the prism through which pop culture was filtered. Dating Amber offers a heightened glimpse of teenage life, but it’s in these sorts of details that it tips over into outright cartoonishness. It’s a problem that recurs throughout the script, with many of the supporting characters feeling like archetypes rather than individuals, drawn in the same broad terms as that sketch of nineties pop culture discourse.

It’s tempting to overstate the extent to which the broadness of these strokes is an issue. Most of the characters surrounding Eddie and Amber serve their functions. The strained marriage between Eddie’s parents illustrates how suffocating societal expectations of a heteronormative family life can be. Amber’s difficulty emotionally connecting with her mother and the tragic back story involving her character explains a lot of her psychology. There’s even a sympathetic teacher on hand who maybe offers a glimpse of a better future for Eddie than the one his father wants.

Near kiss.

However, these supporting characters lack any of the specificity and detail that elevates an exceptional coming of age story like Sing Street or Easy A or The Edge of Seventeen or Booksmart. Characters and relationships develop in Dating Amber pretty much exactly as any audience member might expect from their establishing scenes, with no real surprises or complications along the way. There’s nothing wrong with an established and reliable formula, but Dating Amber lacks the spark within that familiar structure that allows the best films in the genre to stand out.

There is also an issue with tone. Teenage coming of age comedies naturally encompass a wide range of emotional experience, inviting audiences to both laugh at and be moved by the trials and tribulations of the lead characters. The best teenage coming of age films can pivot on a dime between being outrageously hilarious and achingly heartfelt. Dating Amber struggles a little bit with this tonal balance, veering too sharply and oscillating too extremely between broad cartoonish gags about teenage life or wilderness survival and more earnest pleas for spaces where Eddie and Amber can feel comfortable being themselves.

Snapshot of a moment.

To be fair to Dating Amber, the film works where it counts. Freyne’s script and direction has an incredible reservoir of empathy for its two leads, as it charts their disparate journeys towards the people that they need to be. Amber’s yearning to escape to a cosmopolitan hub like London is something instantly recognisable to any teenager who longed to escape suffocating small town life. Eddie’s refusal to acknowledge that he isn’t person that everybody else wants him to be is incredibly moving and heartfelt and sincere. There’s an appealing compassion that anchors Dating Amber, holding it all together.

Freyne also has the luxury working with two very talented teenage performers. Fionn O’Shea established himself with a compelling turn in John Butler’s Handsome Devil, and Dating Amber allows the young actor to build upon his work there. Lola Petticrew impressed with her work opposite Bronagh Gallagher in A Bump Along the Way, and renders Amber as a compelling and multifaceted central figure; the young girl who simultaneously yearns to make a break from her small town origins while remaining inevitably shaped and defined by them.

Dating Amber is a solid and worthy addition to the coming of age canon, one that reliably hits its marks and benefits greatly from two engaging leads. It lacks some of the sophistication, nuance and insight the elevates the best entries in the genre, but there’s still a lot to recommend it.

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