Affecting film, featuring two flawlessly natural, non-professional leads, sustains its child's-eye point of view without strain, though even at 76 minutes inspiration starts to wear somewhat thin.

A little girl and a little boy run away from home, passing from black-and-white kitchen-sink realism to colorful urban fairy tale and then back again, in “Kisses,” Lance Daly’s Yuletide evocation of the delights and terrors of childhood. Affecting film, featuring two flawlessly natural, non-professional leads, sustains its child’s-eye point of view without strain, though even at 76 minutes inspiration starts to wear somewhat thin. Vaguely upbeat without undue sentimentality, the Focus Features pickup could find favor with arthouse auds, though local slang and Irish brogues may require subtitles offshore.

When his drunken father’s violence explodes with particular force, 11-year-old Dylan (Shane Curry) manages to escape with his 10-year-old best friend and next-door neighbor Kylie (Kelly O’Neill), herself the victim of a more hidden form of abuse. The two flee their dreary, working-class town and head to Dublin in search of Dylan’s brother Barry, who took off two years earlier.

The kids hitch a ride down the River Liffey on a dredger piloted by a harmonica-playing immigrant (David Bendito) who introduces them to the music of Dylan’s folk-singer namesake. These early riverboat scenes, equally redolent of Huckleberry Finn and “The Night of the Hunter,” cast their poetic spell over the rest of the expedition.

Once in the city, armed with the money Kylie pilfered from home, the youngsters go on a shopping spree, culminating in the purchase of two bikes. The pint-sized fugitives glide around Dublin, which is suitably decked out for Christmas, as “Kisses” turns unambiguously cheery. Even the squats the kids wander through in search of the elusive Barry contain only lovable down-and-outers.

When night advances, though, the bogeymen emerge from the shadows and an attempted abduction leads to pic’s one extended action sequence.

Director Daly’s “Halo Effect” (which starred Stephen Rea, who also has a small role here) was chockfull of quirky Dubliners down on their luck, but here the helmer largely foregoes local characters in favor of closeups on the children’s faces as they check up on each other, exchanging protective looks throughout the long night.

In less extreme ways, “Kisses” recalls the inseparable next-door-neighbor adolescents in Kirsten Sheridan’s “Disco Pigs,” particularly in the kids’ intense, growing awareness of one another, though Daly displays little interest in Sheridan’s preoccupation with incestuous tragedy or her magic realism. Even in its striking, deliberately artificial use of color, the frame reflecting every emotional state from dingy gray to vivid neon, pic remains strictly within the parameters of normal childhood perception.

Daly, who wrote, directed and lensed, has crafted a timely, heartfelt but not especially transcendent entry in the recent spate of fantasy-brushed children-in-peril pics most vividly embodied by Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Kisses

Ireland

Production

An Element Pictures Distribution release of a Fastnet Films production, in co-production with Zentropa Entertainment/Film I Vast. (International sales: Focus Features Intl., London.) Produced by Macdara Kelleher. Executive producers, Peter Garde, Les Kelly. Co-producer, Tomas Eskilsson. Directed, written by Lance Daly.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W), Daly; editor, J. Patrick Duffner; music, Go Blimps Go; set designer, Waldemar Kalinowski; costume designer, Leoni Prendergast; sound (Dolby Digital), Robert Flanagan. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (International Competition), Aug. 11, 2008. (Also in Telluride Film Festival; Toronto Film Festival -- Vanguard.) Running time: 76 MIN.

With

Kelly O'Neill, Shane Curry, Paul Roe, Neili Conry, Stephen Rea, David Bendito.
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