Intensely atmospheric and featuring an outstanding lead perf from 17-year-old Jack Gleeson, drama “All Good Children” would be almost perfect if only it were a tad less portentous. Feature debut for Brit writer-helmer Alicia Duffy, who’s made acclaimed shorts, pic tells a disquieting story of first love turning very sour when an Irish boy (Gleeson) meets a posh English girl (Imogen Jones) in the French countryside. “Good Children” will need to earn as many straight A’s from critics and gold stars from awards bodies as it can to break out of niche distribution.
Recently bereaved by the death of their mother, Irish-reared 12-year-old Dara (Jack Gleeson, who’s actually 17) and his slightly older brother Eoin (David Brazil) are dropped off by their father (Martin Firket) to live for a few weeks with French aunt Valerie (Lara Persain). With Valerie busy running her farm, the boys, who speak no French, are left to their own devices.
In the woods, they meet Bella (newcomer Imogen Jones), a girl about Dara’s age, and her much younger brother Theo (Austin Moulton), two bored English kids who are none too happy their downsizing but clearly monied parents (Kate Duchene and David Wilmot) have decided to move the family to France into a massive fixer-upper chateau nearby.
Needy Dara and coquettish Bella pair off to play at first like children in the woods, where they discover an abandoned hunter’s lodge they decide to make their secret place. But first kisses lead Dara to think their relationship means as much to Bella as it does to him. When he’s painfully disabused of this mistaken notion, things take a violent turn for the worse.
Adapted very loosely from the novel “The Republic of Trees” by Sam Taylor, script by helmer Duffy is sometimes a bit irritatingly elliptical, especially when it comes to revealing backstories. Rifles and a creepy pit full of water signpost disaster too obviously.
That said, Duffy, her crew and cast impart the characters’ deepest feelings through exchanged looks, distorted sound and exquisitely framed visuals courtesy of lenser Nanu Segal. General sense of painterly discombobulation may recall such contempo Brit arthouse work as Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher,” Duane Hopkins’ “Better Things,” and Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s “Helen,” but “All Good Children” is more straightforward and less complex.
Thesping is strong, particularly by the youngsters, but Gleeson, with his massive blue eyes and anxious, ever-hopeful expression, is the pic’s big discovery. Spooky, droning score thoughtfully counterpoints the pic’s mood, but might have been used a little less to achieve maximum effect.