I always thought I’d been lucky to pass. As more effete classmates withstood the casual cruelty of kids and the rampant homophobia of turn-of-the-century Ireland, as wince-worthy words flew around but never at me, it seemed almost a secret superpower to be able to hide in plain sight; my secret—safe with me. But to hide oneself is to hide from oneself, and the years and their long-lasting shadows of repression and self-deception have served to put that misconception to bed many times over. Few in the queer community don’t carry some version of this compartmentalised experience. Part of reconciling such deep-seated internal tensions is opening them up, living them out, rendering them communal; it’s in that respect that Dating Amber amounts to a grand cathartic event for a generation.
It’s important we acknowledge that Irish cinema, at least at feature length, hasn’t really yet done this. For all the fanfare of a “post-equality” Ireland in the wake of the marriage referendum, our screen stories have remained stubbornly straight. That’s what gives Dating Amber the touch of the radical: in the concocted romance of closeted teens Eddie and Amber, its simple screwball setup hits familiar coming-of-age comedy beats with an unapologetic camp and queerness that renders it decidedly new. Where scant recent predecessors like Handsome Devil and A Date for Mad Mary—both of which undoubtedly laid ground—largely framed lesbian and gay stories in straight narrative structures, this offers a superb step further for Irish LGBT+ representation.
Inclusive and empathetic, director David Freyne’s script carries the clear sense of lived experience, both shared and specific. Mid-’90s period detail abounds: in the particular palettes of home decor; in brave boyhood tales of the girlfriend you wouldn’t know; in the culinary marvel of potato waffles; in the peripheral divorce referendum’s reminders of a culture war waiting in the wings. The faithfully recreated world of this not-so-distant past—nun-hosted sex-ed videos and all—is innately funny in itself, but effectively redolent of a more constrictive mindset too. “This place’ll kill you,” Amber tells Eddie with a sigh, and it’s one of Freyne’s great achievements to maintain that lingering sense of legitimate threat beneath the silly surface tone of his high concept’s hijinks.
He could hardly have better help than from Fionn O’Shea and Lola Petticrew, whose mutual mercurial dynamic as Eddie and Amber facilitates the film’s several tonal shifts with an appearance of ease that’s not often accomplished. There is much here each hides from the other and themselves: Freyne’s astute blocking and close-ups pair with his performers’ caged body language and evocative eyes for a fully-formed character study rich in awkwardness and intimacy. “I don’t think we’re missing anything,” Amber announces in one telltale moment. See how Petticrew boldly reads the line, how O’Shea clutches his arms to himself, how Freyne holds the shot just long enough to see them both weigh the thought—in one moment, a lifetime.
In such moments, and the movie has many, Irish queer viewers will have the rare experience of feeling seen—of having our fears and loneliness writ large on the screen. And in that great shared experience of cinema, where internal ghosts are exorcised, pains past and present may find an outlet. We take comfort in telling ourselves that old Ireland is gone, but its memories live on still in many minds, its casual cruelties continue in all too many schoolyards. In resurrecting and reconciling that past, in allowing us to laugh at its absurdities without trivialising the harms it wrought, Dating Amber gives great cathartic scope. Not just to the generation it portrays, but to the new one that—seeing stories like this—might not need to hide.