The mid-1990s saw a swathe of Irish coming of age dramas set in the 1950s which frequently (and often quite clumsily) sought to equate the experiences of their young, mainly male protagonists with the emergence of the state from its post civil war "adolescence". With varying degrees of success, Korea, Broken Harvest, and All Things Bright and Beautiful all ploughed the same furrow. Similar narratives centered around female leads were notably absent, so when a drama like 32A arrives, focusing on four teenage girls as they deal with the impact of puberty and burgeoning sexuality on their relationships with friends, boys, parents and even with themselves, one is immediately inclined to welcome it.
The female lead in Broken Harvest was played by Marian Quinn, a member of the Quinn film dynasty which extends to her three brothers: cinematographer Declan and actors Paul and Aidan. 32A sees her move behind the camera for the first time, working as writer and director (although she also performs a small but critical role as one of the girls' mothers.) Watching the film the first time, one is immediately struck by the success with which the look and feel of 1970s middle class Dublin suburbia is recreated. Particular kudos go out to the production and art design along with those responsible for set and costumes: one glance at those off-lime green/brown-orange interiors, the blocky facia of a Renault 6 and poured concrete roads and the setting is impossible to mistake. (This notwithstanding the fact parts of the film were shot in locations as far flung as Sligo in a bid to access regional film funds).
However, the narrative territory of the film is not established as effectively. The film follows two strands: in one, 14-year old Maeve (the wonderfully cast Ailish McCarthy), encounters local Lothario Brian Power (Shane McDaid, a convincing ringer for Tommy-era Roger Daltrey) at a party she shouldn't be at. Despite the age gap (two years), they hit it off, aided by a lying-on-the-ground-staring-at-the- stars sequence lifted from Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl. Girl having met boy, the rest of the strand pans out in a predictable fashion: girl falls out with friends over boy, boy drops girl (nicely enough) and girls make up. The reappearance of the estranged father of one of these friends (and equally rapid disappearance) constitutes the film's only subplot suggesting that even adult relationships are not always straightforward.
If this seems an overly brief narrative summary, it is not because I'm pressed for space: at a narrative level 32A features less incident than that contained in a typical episode of Sex and the City. But while Carrie Bradshaw and her friends used to do all this in a 22 minutes, 32A runs on for an hour and a half. As a result, the film meanders. This is not automatically a problem: the success of a film like Steve McQueen's Hunger derives in large part from the fact it doesn't wear its narrative on its sleeve: McQueen's camera adopts an unobtrusive gaze, methodically observing events which rarely feel as though they have been constructed for the camera. Nonetheless in McQueen's hands the result is an almost unbearably intense and compelling film.
32A has the space to take a somewhat banal skeleton narrative and hang upon it an exploration of what it is (or was) to be a pubescent girl in Ireland. This is potentially rich territory and certainly under-explored in Irish cinema. It is nearly two decades since Margo Harkin's Hush-A-Bye Baby pulled off the notable feat of simultaneously exploring teenage sexuality and the mores and moral codes of Catholic culture in Ireland north and south. However, although a number of thematic possibilities are thrown up--teenage sexuality, the unreliability (and even mortality) of parents--32A fails to explore them in any particular depth. Indeed with the possible exception of Imelda (she of the absent father played here by the barely used Jared Harris), the characters seem remarkably unaffected by their experiences: when Maeve is dumped (Brian having gone off with an older--by two years--"woman") her response is remarkably stoic and self-contained for what we are given to understand is the end of her first "relationship" (if such a term can be applied to the short-term liaisons characteristic of many teenage romances. …