There have been about a million American coming-of-age movies, and probably half of those have been about kids from a distinct ethnic group growing up, finding their legs, and dealing with the world as they discover it. So what makes the deceptively titled White Irish Drinkers so special?
We take you to Brooklyn, 1975. Eighteen-year-old Brian Leary (played by Berkeley native Nick Thurston) isn't having trouble with pedophile priests, gangs of kids from rival ethnic enclaves (although he and his friends mock the local Italian kids as "disco faggots"), or even his draft board. No, what's paining Brian are the old reliables: the drunken, abusive dad, Paddy (hammy Stephen Lang), and the hoodlum older brother, Danny (Geoffrey Wigdor). Dad comes home every night from the pub and beats Mom (Karen Allen) and Danny, but significantly leaves Brian alone. He feels left out. Danny, in turn, leans on his younger brother to join in his petty larceny, which is getting more serious by the minute.
Brian would rather hole up in the basement of the family bungalow and paint watercolors. He has talent and is applying to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh to study fine art. But then one night he spies Shauna (Leslie Murphy) across the barroom and falls in love. Pale, red-haired Shauna is the sort of girl James Joyce would have devoted entire sad chapters to. It is she who suggests running naked through the cemetery. Young Brian is a goner.
Writer-director John Gray (he created the Ghost Whisperer series on TV) was blessed to find the faces of actors Thurston and Murphy. They look like real people. So does Allen, Peter Riegert (as Whitey the neighborhood movie theater man), and Ken Jennings, as Jimmy Cheeks the shylock. You can go far with the right kind of Irish face.