Writer-director John Gray tills well-trod ground to harvest “White Irish Drinkers,” a modestly engaging domestic drama that earns few points for originality but rewards aud attention with persuasive performances, outbursts of robust humor and a vivid yet understated evocation of time and place. Set in 1975, pic often resembles something actually made during that period while focusing on a sensitive young man stirred by vague desires for a life beyond his tribal Irish-American working-class neighborhood in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn. Some theatrical dates may be in order, but homevid and cable are more likely to be this indie’s natural habitat.

Eighteen-year-old Brian Leary (Nick Thurston) and Danny (Geoff Wigdor), his older, tougher brother, want to move out of the cramped apartment they share with their abusive alcoholic father (Stephen Lang) and perpetually anxious mother (Karen Allen). But while Danny thinks burglary can finance a better future — and vainly tries to enlist his sibling as a partner in crime — Brian is content to work for Whitey (Peter Riegert), owner of a failing neighborhood movie theater.In his free hours, however, Brian steals away to the basement of their apartment building, where he draws and paints in a makeshift studio.

He’s reluctant to tell anyone, even his mom, about his artistic ambitions. But when Whitey hatches an improbable moneymaking scheme (because an acquaintance is the tour manager for the Rolling Stones, he says, he can book the band for a one-hour, one-time-only concert at his theater), Brian begins to seriously consider art school as an option. Unfortunately, Danny even more seriously considers robbing the theater on the night of the concert.

Long before making his mark as creator/producer of TV’s “Ghost Whisperer,” Gray wrote and directed the unjustly overlooked “Billy Galvin,” a sensitive, well-observed 1986 indie about the generational clash between a blue-collar dad and his admiring yet rebellious son. “White Irish Drinkers” shares many of that earlier pic’s finer qualities, as Gray again evidences a sharp eye for revealing character detail, a good ear for distinctive (and often quite vulgar) figures of speech and an uncondescending appreciation for sometimes affectionate, sometimes belligerent give-and-take among working-class friends and family members.

Some of the best scenes involve Brian’s interplay with neighborhood buddies who proudly prefer booze to drugs — pic’s title is their self-celebrating motto — and gruffly insist that landing a civil service job (with, they repeatedly emphasize, medical benefits) is a more practical option than earning any college degree.Gray doesn’t go out of his way to avoid cliches common to this type of drama. Naturally, Brian falls for a feisty young lovely (Leslie Murphy) with her own plans to escape the neighborhood, and the drunken dad has a scene in which he gets to “explain” his brutish behavior, so that aud is able to understand, if not forgive, the character. Pic’s worst misstep is a jarring climactic scene, clearly intended as something of an anti-cliche — one that has Brian behaving out of character.

Fine performances by well-cast vets and up-and-comers go a long way toward maintaining credibility during those occasional stretches where the grinding of plot mechanics threatens to be a distraction. And while Gray doesn’t push too hard while introducing some wink-wink ironies, he wrings a good laugh from Whitey’s dismissive appraisal of a box office bust recently shown at his theater, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”Production values indicate a small budget was spent smartly.

White Irish Drinkers

  • Production: An Ovington Avenue Prods. production in association with Bernard/Scura Prods. Produced by John Gray, Melissa Jo Peltier, Paul Bernard, James Scura. Directed, written by John Gray.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Seamus Tierney; editor, Neil Mandelberg; music, Mark Snow; production designer, Tomasso Ortino; art director, Justin Guereux; set decorator, Amy Williams; costume designer, Nicole Capasso; sound, Tammy Douglas; casting, Russell Boast. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 13, 2010. Running time: 109 MIN.
  • With: With: Nick Thurston, Geoff Wigdor, Karen Allen, Stephen Lang, Peter Riegert, Leslie Murphy, Zachary Booth, Ken Jennings.