Santa Barbara Film Review: ‘Metal Heart’

Twins swap places in this sweet, empowering Irish coming-of-age story centered around sibling rivalry and the growing pains of approaching adulthood.

Hugh O'Conor
Jordanne Jones, Leah McNamara, Moe Dunford, Seán Doyle.

1 hour 28 minutes

Two warring teenage twins mix like oil and water — and have the emotional battle scars to show for it — in director Hugh O’Conor’s “Metal Heart.” This coming-of-age film delivers plenty of sweet sentiments about sisterhood, kinship, and honesty to its target market, though the package that surrounds it isn’t as unique as one would hope.

Goth girl Emma (Jordanne Jones) and her bubbly blonde sister Chantal (Leah McNamara) are not identical in any way, shape, or form. Emma is withdrawn, forlorn, and pessimistic, whereas her fraternal twin is pretty, popular, and prissy. However, the two must find common ground when their parents abandon them for the summer. It’s the pair’s last hurrah before they go their separate ways: Emma’s bound for college, and Chantal plans to parlay her blog into a big business. This bonding opportunity would be ideal quality time together if the siblings actually got along, but they don’t, and they’re not about to start trying now.

Almost immediately after their parents’ departure, the sisters’ unspoken plans to avoid each other hit a major snag. Not only does Chantal suffer a minor fender-bender, leaving her in a neck brace and unable to work at a local ice cream parlor for six weeks, but Emma’s forced to enlist Chantal’s help in finding a job so she can rent a rehearsal space for her band. That’s when Emma’s best friend and bandmate Gary (Seán Doyle) hatches the clever idea that Emma to substitute at Chantal’s gig until she’s back on her feet.

It’s during this downtime that the sisters practically swap personalities. Emma begins hanging out with Chantal’s friends and bringing innovative ideas to her workplace. She even embarks on a romance with cute, older next-door neighbor Dan (Moe Dunford), who’s hiding signs of financial trouble and toxicity. Chantal, discovering the frustrations of boredom and limited mobility, spends her days eating empty calories, gaining weight, becoming depressed and shutting out the world. She’s also cut off her relationship with her beefcake boyfriend Alan (Aaron Heffernan). While the experience awakens the sisters to one another’s struggles, it doesn’t prevent them from making missteps that affect their future plans.

Though Paul Murray’s screenplay traces a predictable pattern for films of this ilk, the way he and O’Conor color between the lines makes the narrative vibrant. A joyful rush washes over us as Emma unearths her female agency, finds the bravery to pursue romance, gives herself a make-under, and becomes more outgoing — all with guidance gleaned from Chantal’s blog posts. The filmmakers also don’t assign easily-defined archetypes to their characters. From the unlikely friendships formed between Alan and Gary, to the bond between Chantal and Dan’s dementia-suffering mother, Mrs. Galton (Jane Brennan), each relationship demonstrates dynamic sides. Heart-filled sentiments aren’t over-wrought, but rather raw and honest.

Eoin McLoughlin’s saturated cinematography emphasizes the narrative’s tonal qualities. Outside of Emma’s bleak, black bedroom, colors pop as if they’re beckoning her to join the living. In editor Julian Ulrichs’ hands, scenes don’t outstay their welcome as he establishes solid timing to both the comedy-laced aspects and touching, dramatic ones. Using a warm, ’80s-inspired synth sound, composer John McPhillips’ score imbues this tale with a driving heartbeat that augments the scenery and lends the film a peppy identity.

Even so, “Metal Hearts” hurts for a more feminine perspective, lacking the kind of specificity that would have made such material excel. The glossy, superficial sheen suggests a spectator’s view of a caustic-but-caring sisterly bond, as opposed to one that comes from an insightful, authoritative place. Despite the lead actresses’ capabilities, there’s not a lot of nuance within the sisters’ rivalry: They’re temperamental teens whose bickering springs forth from a loving place, and the material ultimately fails to explore the deeper reasons why the pair are more alike than they are different.

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Santa Barbara Film Review: 'Metal Heart'

Reviewed online, Los Angeles, Feb. 8, 2019. (In Santa Barbara Film Festival.) Running time: ­­­­­88 MIN.

Production: A Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board presentation, made in association with RTE, produced in association with Head Gear Films, Metrol Technology, in association with Bank Side Films, Film Base, of a Treasure Entertainment production. Producers: Claire McCaughley, Rebecca O'Flanagan, Robert Walpole. Executive producers: Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Lesley McKimm, Hilary Davis, Stephen Kelliher.

Crew: Director: Hugh O'Conor. Screenplay: Paul Murray. Camera (color, widescreen): Eoin McLoughlin. Editor: Julian Ulrichs. Music: John McPhillips.

With: Jordanne Jones, Leah McNamara, Moe Dunford, Seán Doyle.

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