The protagonist of “Joyride” is named Joy. Joy is seeking a ride out of town. How charmed or irked you are by this rather rudimentary wordplay may also determine your receptiveness to this soft-hearted, high-spirited Irish road movie, which takes a chipper, sometimes openly cheesy approach to fraught emotional terrain. Charting the unlikely camaraderie between a self-sufficient 12-year-old boy and a spiraling middle-aged lawyer with a newborn baby — both seeking an escape of sorts from loveless lives in a drab County Kerry town — Emer Reynolds’ film weaves pretty freely between tonal lanes, as dictated by the blend of character-rooted intimacy and sitcom-like contrivance in Ailbhe Keogan’s script. “Joyride” needs some deft actors driving it, and it has lucked out: An up-for-anything Olivia Colman and scrappy newcomer Charlie Reid make for an unlikely but appealing buddy duo.
Colman, in particular, grants “Joyride” an outsize dramatic presence that a jaunty little caper like this one can’t have been counting on all along. In the three years since her Oscar win, the British star has continued to surprise with the alternating scale of her projects, reaping the benefits of being simultaneously an unassuming character actor and an in-demand leading lady. As such, she lends a modest enterprise both a glimmer of star power and, even with a lightly affected Irish accent, a ring of lived-in credibility. Following its theatrical opening this week in the British Isles, “Joyride” will count heavily on her name to draw audiences elsewhere, perhaps on smaller screens; Sony will be releasing the film Stateside.
At the outset, however, it’s charismatic teen Reid who does the heavy lifting, opening proceedings with a barnstorming barroom performance of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.” His character, Mully, is accustomed to entertaining the crowds at the local pub, this time to raise cancer charity funds in honor of his recently departed mother. Patrons give generously; his fears, however, that his wastrel father James (Lochlann O’Mearáin) will make off with the cash for his own benefit prove well-founded. Thinking on his feet, Mully steals the dough before his dad can, and hijacks an idling taxicab to make a break for it — yep, the boy’s precocious gifts extend to reckless getaway driving.
The spanner in the works turns out to be Joy (Colman), drunk and woozy on the back seat of the cab, with a weeks-old infant in tow. Briskly rejecting Mully’s attempts to eject her from the vehicle, she instead ropes the kid into a getaway plan of her own, which entails handing over her unwanted newborn to her best friend, before catching a flight to sunny Lanzarote. We never learn what she intends to do after that, but then Joy, a usually grounded legal eagle in the throes of post-partum crisis, has only immediate escape on her mind. “I’m going forward, not back,” she says repeatedly throughout the film — though the winding country roads of southwest Ireland, shot by DP James Mather with a verdant picture-postcard glow, are determined to slow her progress.
This rather breathless setup is all achieved before the film’s title credit even pops up on screen, to the perky strains of 1970s novelty hit “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep,” only for the narrative to hit a gentler, more meandering groove thereafter. If the circumstances keeping Joy and Mully on the road together are never fully believable, the characters themselves gradually emerge as plausibly worn, wounded people rather than odd-couple comedy components. “Joyride” is best when it shoots for honest, occasionally uneasy tenderness rather than cute banter: One unusual, beautifully played scene, in which the more baby-adept Mully talks a reluctant Joy through her first breastfeed, is striking both for its welcome lack of coyness and its meshing of adult and adolescent points of view. Colman has become a go-to actor for masking pained personal histories behind either brittle snappishness or bluff affability; Reid’s ingenuous, old-soul charm is a winning foil for that defensive quality.
The pair’s evolving sense of obligation and empathy toward each other — even within a compressed two-day timeframe — is affecting enough to make “Joyride’s” plottier passages feel like intrusions on a more pensive character study. In particular, James is such a one-dimensional good-for-nothing that his dogged pursuit of Mully and Joy adds limited dramatic interest. If there’s little doubt as to where the script is ultimately headed, Reynolds’ direction is rather more surprising. A docmaker best known for her elegant, Emmy-winning outer space meditation “The Farthest,” she tackles her first fiction feature by layering prosaic realism with flourishes of romanticized geographic reverie and even some winking kitsch symbolism: The bouncy red robin that follows Joy wherever she goes might strike some as excess whimsy, but as with its cornball title, “Joyride” would rather be happily itself than hip.