Last year's Sundance proved to be a home for impressive indies about rageful sons caring for their angry, physically ill mothers. While James White earned the bulk of the attention for its impressive performances by Cynthia Nixon and Christopher Abbott, it wasn't the only such film to earn awards at the prestigious festival. Gerard Barrett's sobering, intimate sophomore feature, Glassland, boasts equally strong turns by Toni Collette and Transformers: Age of Extinction's Jack Reynor. Set in gloomy Dublin, the locale proves a wistful setting for a heart-wrenching, if overstuffed, story about familial responsibility and disappointment.
Reynor, who first showed his dramatic chops in the 2012 drama, What Richard Did, plays John, a hard-working if volatile Irish cabbie. John's life doesn't hold a ton of promise; there isn't much hope of escape to find a better future elsewhere. He's stuck barely scraping by financially, and even if he was more capable he'd still have to stay and take care of his alcoholic mother, Jean (Collette), who can barely get through the day without being falling down, violent drunk. She alternately needs her son and is resentful of him, the emotional push and pull tearing him apart on a regular basis.
Peering into their lives from the outside, as if through a glass window (perhaps what the title implies), we watch as John looks for an escape any way he can. While his mind-numbing job is one outlet, he finds a few moments of trouble-making fun with his best buddy, Shane (Will Poulter), who also is without a male father figure. But in Shane's case, he plans to make something of himself and leave to explore the world. Much of John's anger, which manifests itself in brief moments of rage just like his mother, has to do with his inability to follow in his friend's footsteps. John's also locked down by the need to watch over his younger brother who is afflicted with Down's Syndrome, and can't rely on his mother for consistent support.
That sense of being boxed in, of being an animal trapped in a corner, is the most impressive feat of Barrett's direction. But unlike James White, which zips by on kinetic energy, Glassland shows a more reserved, even poetic look at quiet desperation. Key to that is the strength of Reynor and Collette's subtle performances. It's crucial that we understand why they put up with one another's crap as much as they do, and through nuanced turns both stars make that clear. In one particular, lengthy confrontation we come to understand all of Jean's pain and humiliation over her addiction, but also the deep maternal love she has for her son. It may get lost in the alcohol haze but never truly goes away. While at the same time we come to understand John's need to care for her despite the abuse. There's so much good work done by the two leads that Barrett's decision to tack on unnecessary, distracting subplots is curious. One involves John's illegal transport of Asian sex workers, a topic way too broad to be so carelessly included in such a personal story. Glassland isn't the kind of film that will make a lot of waves. In fact, it's specifically designed not to, and that unassuming, detailed attention to character should be seen only as a virtue.