Synopsis: A closeted gay teen and his lesbian counterpart pretend to be a couple to avoid suspicion.
Stars: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Barry Ward, Sharon Horgan, Simone Kirby, Lauryn Canny, Emma Willis
Director: David Freyne
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Whether we like it or not, those that lay out their opinions on film for all the world to read are bound to be caught in a fickle situation or two. I’m as guilty as the next person of loving the easy-breezy romantic comedies that don’t ask too much of the viewer just as much as I crave those brainless action blockbusters that are made for chomping popcorn. These movies are easy to identify (and, thus, write-off if you so choose) but it’s similar-themed fare that often can bear the burden of more harsh scrutiny. Films such as these may seem rather conventional but look carefully and you can spot an aspiration that wasn’t met that needs to be called out.
Sadly, one of the newest examples of this is the import Irish comedy Dating Amber. Here’s one that checked all the boxes on my list for a charming weekend watch but wound up being a disappointing rehash of ideas already brought to the screen. I’m always onboard for a comedy that goes against the norm and defies expectations, so when I plunk down in front of one that is earnest as all get out and, it must be said, made with the most noble of intentions, I still have to give it its fair shake. Despite an appealing cast and subject matter that usually gets short shrift in the romantic realm, writer/director David Freyne opts for the obvious when a surprise or two will do and ends up with the five words no LGBTQ film wants to be classified as: Just Another Ordinary Gay Movie.
The oldest child of a military man (Barry Ward, Extra Ordinary) and a stay-at-home mom (Sharon Horgan, Game Night), Eddie (Fionn O’Shea, The Aftermath) is doing everything he can to repress his gay feelings that are becoming too big to ignore. His friends egg him on to an embarrassing encounter with the loosest girl in their Irish countryside school, an experience that backfires on him and only puts a larger spotlight on his lack of interest in the opposite sex. Watching all of this unfold is Amber (Lola Petticrew), a popular target for the boys in her class to make crass jokes about and to be harassed by the girls for her supposed lesbian leanings. Living in a trailer park with her mom after her dad committed suicide, she’s saving up money to head to London by renting one of the empty trailers on her property by the hour to any of her horny classmates that have the cash.
Tired of being bullied and trusting her gut, Amber approaches Eddie and makes him a proposition. Since they’re both gay (though he claims he’s not), why don’t they pretend to date. That will squash the daily taunting at school and help them get through the final months before they can truly begin to live their best lives. Under the guise of doing it to help her, Eddie agrees and the two start their faux relationship which burgeons into just the kind of platonic friendship both had been needing. Though their romantic lives still need some help, they find some semblance of normalcy in the partnership of another person that understands how the other feels. However, the more Amber uses this safe space to learn to be happy with accepting her sexuality, the less Eddie follows suit, leading to an emotional rift that threatens their ideal arrangement.
Countless high school films over the years have dealt with these secret relationship/friendship machinations and we all know where they’re heading. That Dating Amber follows such a standard trajectory while only occasionally setting a pinky toe into new territory is a bummer because there’s some rich emotional soil that could be uncovered here. Instead, Freyne gives us another school filled with teens that are obnoxious homophobic horndogs and at least one parent that feels like they’ve been waiting their whole life to have a gay child and has had their “I accept you” speech well-rehearsed. It’s inevitable the teens will have some sort of heated confrontation in a school hallway and the parent will get a late-night teary moment to offer their support…we’re just checking our watches for when it will occur. It should be said that not enough films go into the relationship between gay men and women with as much mirth. Wisely, Freyne makes these showcase moments meaning they are memorable but infrequent.
Perhaps Freyne just has too much going on that took away from the people we were here to see. The story is about the evolution of both Eddie and Amber getting to a new level of love for themselves, but some side story always seems to be getting in the way. Horgan and Ward are strong actors but the fact their marriage was in shambles had little to do with their son and seemed like a plot thread dropped from Horgan’s Military Wives from earlier this year. Exploring Amber’s home life tied in a bit more, but lack of development of this area kept it from resonating, which is a shame because Petticrew and Simone Kirby (The Shadow of Violence) as her mother had some good interplay. I’ve really enjoyed O’Shea in Hulu’s Normal People (where he played a real a-hole) as well as Handsome Devil (a much better LGBTQ pic showing a less typical coming-out story) but here his bundle of nerves got old quickly. Also, it got aggravating that Eddie’s given so many passes for his poor behavior and violent outbursts without paying much of a realistic price that I began to care less about his ultimate journey.
Originally titled Beards, Dating Amber should have been better than it is considering the scope of possibilities open to the filmmakers. The entire film I had the nagging feeling like I’d seen this all before. It wasn’t that it’s an exact carbon copy of other, better, films, it’s that almost all of its choices are so textbook that you could choose any high school romantic comedy (gay or straight) off the shelf and find the same characters. I’m glad movies like this are getting made and hope they continue to arrive with regularity…I just hope they aren’t so, you know, regular.