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D: Peter Foott / 83m

Cast: Alex Murphy, Chris Walley, Hilary Rose, Dominic MacHale, PJ Gallagher, Shane Casey, Pascal Scott, Michael Sands, Ciaran Bérmingham

It’s the summer of 2007 in Cork, and best friends Conor (Murphy) and Jock (Walley) are spending their time differently: Conor is helping out his mother, Mairead (Rose), where she works at a fish market, while Jock is busy stealing bicycles and masquerading – literally – as a local thug called Billy (Casey) (helpfully he’s known as Fake Billy). Conor’s father died when he was four, and Jock’s mother only a year ago. Conor’s mother is hard on him, and is always calling him a moron, while Jock’s dad (Sands) has taken to drinking to deal with his grief; both boys wish for better family lives but don’t know how to make things better.

The big news story of the summer is a shipwreck further west that has seen bales of cocaine washed up along the shoreline. With each one reckoned to be worth around seven million Euros, Jock decides they should travel down to where the wreck occurred, grab themselves a bale, and make themselves rich on the proceeds (though how they’ll do that they haven’t worked out yet). Jock steals a couple of bicycles, and off they go, unaware that one of the bicycles has been fitted with a GPS transmitter, the brain child of obsessive Garda officer, Sergeant Healy (MacHale). Healy is determined to catch Fake Billy, and will do everything in his power to do so, even if it means tracking him across half of southern Ireland.

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On their way they manage to elude Healy, but once they get to the site of the wreck, Conor and Jock are dismayed to learn that all the bales have been recovered by the Garda. But their fortunes change when they discover a man (Gallagher) sleeping with what looks suspiciously like one of the bales. They take the bale, strap it to the back of Conor’s bicycle, but as they set off back to Cork, something unforeseen happens, something they don’t discover until they get back home. With their luck already going from bad to worse – Healy is still hot on their trail – the sleeping man manages to track them down, resulting in a standoff in Conor’s kitchen that involves the two friends, Mairead, Healy, real Billy, the sleeping man, a large quantity of flour, and a nail gun.

Apparently based on true events, The Young Offenders has charm, laughs aplenty, and a huge amount of heart – and two utterly beguiling performances courtesy of Murphy and Walley. It’s safe to say that you won’t see two more convincing portrayals of what the Irish call “eejits” than here, as Murphy and Walley reach new heights of comic stupidity as best friends Conor and Jock, two young lads who know nothing and seem content with their ignorance. At one point, Jock mentions their country’s forefathers, and Conor asks who he means. Jock’s response? “Eh, Saint Patrick, Saint Bridget… I don’t know…” Of course, the level (or depth) of their stupidity is due to the wonderfully acerbic dialogue that writer/director Peter Foott (making his feature debut) has created, but the two young actors bring both characters to life such a measure of deadpan delight, that you can’t be helped but won over by Conor and Jock’s naive self-belief and disingenuous approach to life.

With two such convincing and commendable performances at the movie’s centre, you could be forgiven for thinking that the supporting characters would be less engaging, but thanks again to Foott’s considered and surprisingly layered script, such is not the case. Mairead, ostensibly a mother in constant despair at the juvenile antics of her only son, proves to be a thoughtful and supportive parent who genuinely wants what’s best for him. A scene towards the end where she and Conor find the common ground that’s been between them all along, is both funny and poignant, and emotional as well. Rose is terrific as Conor’s mother, and her scenes with Murphy provide the heart and soul of the movie just as much as the friendship between Conor and Jock does; she’s also great when dishing out insults to Jock (who thinks she’s kidding): when she points out a sucker fish to him, she tells him that will be his nickname in prison.

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Elsewhere, the obsessive Sergeant Healy is played with fierce determination by MacHale, and while the role could have been entirely one-dimensional, the actor makes him both sympathetic and understandable, a man who views his position within the Garda as one that carries great civic responsibility (even if it is a little too tightly focused). As the sleeping man, Gallagher is a joy, resourceful and clever despite having a withered arm and a club foot, and permanently astonished at how things are turning out (the scene where he acquires the nail gun is beautifully played). And there’s a wonderfully absurd, poignant, and unexpectedly heartfelt sequence involving a farmer (Scott) who suffers from a combination of alcoholism and confusion. Conor and Jock want to do right by him when they realise what his problems are, and they spend the evening with him, leading Conor to remark that “that was the closest we’d all got to a normal night in”.

It’s these moments when Foott reveals the sadness and the emotional complexity behind the characters, and lets on that they’re not entirely the “eejits” they appear to be that gives the movie a resonance and a warmth that makes it all the more impressive. Foott isn’t solely interested in making us laugh, he also wants us to experience the truth of Conor and Jock’s lives away from the obvious camaraderie they have with each other, where pain and heartache linger, but where they themselves are determined to keep them when they’re together. They’re always dreaming of what their lives could be like – the opening scene sees Jock ask Conor what he’d do if he had a million Euros – and deep down they just want ordinary home lives. By the movie’s end, Conor is well on the way to having achieved that, while Foott is careful to ensure that there’s no obvious happy ending for Jock, merely the possibility of one.

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In essence, The Young Offenders is a movie about friendship and dreams, and how the two can sometimes, if we’re lucky, go together hand in hand. Foott is a talent to watch, and translates his script to the screen with confidence and aplomb. He extracts wonderful performances from all concerned, and there’s not one moment that feels forced or out of place. The comedy is fresh, laugh out loud funny, and deftly played by all concerned, while there’s plenty of pathos and bittersweet emotion in amongst all the levity. The movie looks great as well thanks to Paddy Jordan’s crisp, sky-bright cinematography, and on the soundtrack, there’s the more than welcome inclusion of Where’s Me Jumper by Sultans of Ping E.C., a proto-punk song that fits in well as a way of seeing out the movie on a musical high.

Rating: 9/10 – a perfectly balanced mix of comedy and familial heartbreak, The Young Offenders is the kind of movie that makes you want to spend more time with its central characters, and as soon as possible; Foott is to be congratulated for making a movie that operates so effectively on so many unexpected levels, and for keeping the friendship between Conor and Jock entirely credible throughout, an achievement that boosts the movie’s entertainment value and at the same time, ensures that it’s a rewarding viewing.

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