By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 19, 2012 at 9:51AM
As we all are with films set in cities we know well, this writer is particularly critical of films set, partially or wholly, in Dublin. So it's no mean praise when we state that Kirsten Sheridan's third feature, "Dollhouse," by turns riotous and menacing, is as accurate a portrait of the interactions, language and attitudes of a particular segment of Irish youth as we have seen on screen, probably ever. Set in a single location over the course of a single night's bacchanalian partying, the improvisational approach brings real authenticity to the proceedings, even as the film nods to "Lord of the Flies" and "A Clockwork Orange." Twists and surprises abound right up to the (somewhat problematic) ending, but the throughlines are clear: this is a film about youth, the tension between feeling disaffected and disenfranchised and feeling exuberantly, indestructibly alive; and it is a film about class, the warring instincts of admiration, jealousy and scorn that colour a middle class view of those lower on the social scale, and vice versa.
Five young friends, identified en masse as coming from less-than-privileged backgrounds, invade a well-appointed designer seaside home, proceed to take copious amounts of drugs and booze, and in the local parlance "trash the gaff" -- they joyously smash, deface and destroy the place in every manner possible. Amidst the drink and drugs, the games and tests and sexual activity, Jeannie (Seana Kerslake) is the quiet centre of the storm, not partaking in the bedlam with quite as much uncomplicated enthusiasm, but not preventing it either. When the first of her secrets is revealed, and we discover that this is in fact Jeannie's family home, the rest of the gang respond to this perceived betrayal in different ways; with confusion, hurt and occasionally violence, both emotional and physical. The class issues are highlighted further when clean-cut Robbie (Jack Reynor) calls over from next door, initially complaining about the noise, then recognising Jeannie in the chaos and becoming another uneasy member of the group, which continues to fragment and coalesce like a living organism.
The resulting dynamic that doesn't so much shift as veer wildly from threatening and predatory to caring and protective is brilliantly evoked by Sheridan and her fine cast of unknown, and in some cases non-professional actors. As is that very recognisable sense, for anyone who has ever done the partying-all-night thing, of going through phases of chemical highs and emotional lows, and how time takes on a strangely elastic surreal quality. Indeed a scene in which one of the guys takes a shower is remarkable for its presentation of the sort of caesura you rarely see in party scenes: he looks so bone-tired, so fed up, and you know for that moment he is wishing it would all just stop. But a few minutes and a pill or two later and he'll back to drawing on the walls and gleefully throwing furniture off the balcony.
But it's perhaps a factor of the film's slight over-length that these lulls in between the highs, while undoubtedly honest to the situation, do eventually start to wear on the viewer; we see that rhythm play itself out just one too many times. Similarly, in creating a mystery around Jeannie, the film is over-reliant on shots of her reacting blankly or meeting a question with silence, and ultimately we lose some interest in her. But the film's biggest flaw, to our mind, is the divisive ending. In her two other features to date ("Disco Pigs," "August Rush") Sheridan has shown a certain penchant for a kind of miraculous or perhaps hyper-coincidental lyricism, which is not a bad thing in its own right, but when used to resolve what has until then been a hard-edged, real-feeling story, it comes off as a bit at odds. We've no intention of spoiling it, but suffice to say the film closes with a kind of tableaux-like staginess that is a long way away from where it's been. It also results in one of the few clunky lines of dialogue. When one of the characters says "See you again," the truth is written all over everyone's faces but the reply comes, "No. We won't." It feels scripted, stilted and entirely on the nose by contrast with the rest of the film's naturalistic vibe.
However there really is much more here to admire than critique. We'd hazard that often onscreen drug scenes are a bore -- it feels like the point of tripping is to have a completely subjective experience so trying to describe it ends up like trying to describe a dream, and we all know there's nothing less interesting than someone else's dream. Yet Sheridan navigates this perilous route well, only attempting a first-person feel on a single occasion, and the rest of the time observing our characters hallucinating or euphoric or whatever, without attempting to show us what they're seeing from the inside. Paradoxically it brings a much greater sense of proximity: we might not feel like we are any one of them, but we do feel, absolutely, like we're there.
The mastery of tonal control, aforementioned lapses aside, is also impressive. It is not easy to create a framework in which moments of sweetness and understanding can sit believably beside scenes of genuine menace and creeping dread, but here all that is achieved. And huge props have to go to the young cast (Shane Curry, Ciaran McCabe, Kate Stanley Brennan, Johnny Ward, as well as Reynor and Kerslake), who all fling themselves into this experiment with absolute conviction and inhabit their characters completely. "Dollhouse" is at times an uncomfortable watch, and it is not without its problems and its pessimisms. But it also thrums with life and vigour, and is utterly authentic to the cadences of Dublin speech and the pattern of youthful relationships, how easily they are formed and broken, and how, when we kick in the door of life to gain access to something we've been denied, we may not find what we expected. It is, in the end, approaching hangover and all, one hell of a fucking party. [B+]