Perhaps not the most original film you’ll see all year, but very possibly the most instantly lovable, first-time filmmaker Darren Thornton’s beautifully performed, warm yet melancholic “A Date for Mad Mary” proves that “Sing Street” director John Carney does not have the Irish monopoly on highly exportable rite-of-passage dramedies. And in Seána Kerslake’s performance as the eponymous Mary (“mad” being used in its semi-admiring, semi-cautionary Irish vernacular form) he may even have an ace that Carney’s ensemble picture lacks: a barnstorming central performance, full of light and shade, that should by rights be the breakthrough Kerslake has deserved since her debut in Kirsten Sheridan’s bafflingly underseen “Dollhouse.”
Seldom have the familiar beats of the transition-to-adulthood story felt more engaging, perhaps because Thornton knows his material inside out: Having directed the Yasmine Akram play “10 Dates for Mad Mary” for stage, he has now, together with his brother Colin, adapted it into this poppy, profanity-laden period piece. (For reference, it’s set post-“Mamma Mia!” and pre-Tinder, so we’re looking back, but not so very far.) Yet as appealing and accessible as it is, there’s a keen edge of relatable sadness to it too: As much as it’s a comedy and a salty taste of lower-middle life in Drogheda (a biggish port town just north of Dublin), it’s also an end-of-love story.
We are introduced to Mary as she is released from prison, after a six-month stint for a vicious attack on a girl in a nightclub. But in contrast to the hard-edged images and Mary’s air of resentful belligerence — “‘Bout f—in’ time,” is the first thing she snarls at her mother (Fionnuala Murphy) when she’s a little late to pick her up — her soft, awestruck voiceover gently lists all the amazing “things you need to know about Charlene.” Charlene, her best mate, is soon to be married, and Mary is painstakingly composing her maid-of-honor speech; though the circumstances of its sweetly personal declarations (“She’d always have your back and not just in a fight, like”) may be artificial, the sentiment is real.
But Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) doesn’t show up to celebrate Mary’s release, and there follows a series of increasingly mortifying interactions, unanswered phone calls and pointed gestures that show how Charlene now considers Mary a peripheral presence at best — the kind of second-tier friend who, at a “Mamma Mia!”-themed hen party, might hilariously be assigned to dress up as Stellan Skarsgard. (The maid of honor position, by this point, seems like a legacy appointment.) As for a plus one, well, who would Mary even bring — isn’t everyone she knows already coming, and isn’t the catering 60 quid a plate? In so many areas, the film is sharp in its delineation of women of all ages acidly judging each other based on their ability to attract a man.
Assuming her friend will come round sooner or later and unable to comprehend the scale of her loneliness without her (having proudly alienated almost everyone else in town), Mary thus embarks on a petulant, unromantic mission to find a fella who will be her date to the wedding. But then an unexpected relationship begins, with musician Jess (a luminous Tara Lee) and new notes of hope and confusion are introduced into Mary’s Molotov cocktail of emotions.
As lovely as the kindling spark between Mary and Jess is, it’s a shame that the coming-out subplot will almost inevitably be read as an “explanation” for parts of Mary’s arc that are more resonant if they simply belong to her and not to her sexuality. The ferocity of her friendship with Charlene might be seen as the result of unrequited lesbian love, yet extraordinarily passionate attachments are often formed between young girls with no correlation to sexual orientation. Mary’s violence and her antisocial behavior could also be accounted for as an offshoot of her repressed homosexuality, but Kerslake’s multifaceted characterization deserves better than such pat cause-and-effect logic.
That’s an observation rather than a critique, though: In every other department, “Mad Mary” is a delight, especially for its rounded supporting characters, its skewering use of language, and the pinpoint accuracy of its observations of life in this specific time and place. From Mary’s ever-present can of Bulmers cider to the way the bouncers throwing her out always know her name, to the proper use of the word “mitching,” this is an immensely endearing, insider’s look at Ireland’s recent past. And when he needs to, Thornton knows to just let a scene be: The moment when Mary comes face to face with the victim of her attack is played completely wordlessly, but speaks volumes about the inescapability of your past in a town where everyone knows your business.
Drogheda’s wet nighttime streets are shot by Ole Bratt Birkeland’s warm-toned camera to look romantic, but there’s a reason why the song Jess performs one evening in McPhail’s pub has the refrain, “Let’s get out of this place.” While steeped in fondness for its setting, the film also castigates a stifling atmosphere of conformity: At one point, Charlene digs deep for the most wounding thing she can say to Mary, and can only come up with, “You’re making a show of yourself.” As funny, flawed and foulmouthed as its irresistible central character, “A Date for Mad Mary” makes an absolute show of itself, and it is wonderful.