In America, it’s often easy to forget that the recession hit the rest of the world as well. Life’s a Breeze, the latest from Lance Daly (The Good Doctor), puts the hard times of Ireland on the screen through the lens of a heartfelt comedy. It’s an intimate film, but a thematically ambitious one that paints a compelling and honest picture of Dublin through the eyes of a family on the fringes of poverty.
Nan Small (Fionnula Flanagan, Waking Ned Devine) is a retired schoolteacher and widow living with her unemployed son, Colm (Pat Shortt, Calvary). Just before her 80th birthday, Colm pays his niece Emma (Kelly Thornton) to take her grandmother out for the day so the rest of the family can give Nan’s house a much needed surprise makeover. When Nan and Emma return, 40 years of clutter are gone, everything’s been cleaned, and her old mattress has been replaced with a new one. The only problem is that hidden inside Nan’s old mattress was her life’s savings, nearly a million Euros.
The entire family bands together to find the mattress and the treasure inside, searching dumps, and landfills, and recycling centers. Things get more complicated when Colm advertises a reward for the mattress on the radio. Soon, the whole nation is out searching for Nan’s mattress.
The plot of Life’s a Breeze is wonderfully simple. Daly makes no real attempt at elevating the story above the level of highjinx, focusing instead on the inner life of the family. The result is an incredibly rich family portrait that feels uncommonly authentic. It’s a compelling look at modern Ireland seen not from the streets, but from within the home. When the film does venture outside, it does so with grace and a surprising amount of beauty for a film that is, in many ways, about trash.
For such an intimate film, there’s quite a bit of broader social commentary on display. The crowds of people who swarm the dumps to find the mattress not only provide additional obstacle for the family to overcome, but also show just how desperate the Dublin lower and middle classes are. The looming shame of welfare and dependence perforates the entire family, from Colm’s indignity of living with his mother to Emma’s embarrassment of having nothing but bread and a banana for lunch at school.
The film does strike some dissonant chords, its dramatic and comedic tensions clashing occasionally. The brief running time would be appropriate if the movie actually was the comedy that it bills itself, but the film’s more dramatic inclinations leave its 88-minute runtime feeling rushed. This is nowhere more evident than in it’s use of newspaper headlines to advance the plot, which feels quaint and a little lazy.
Whatever the film lacks in richness of plot, it more than makes up for in richness of character. The film’s three leads all turn in magnificent performances. Flanagan is wonderful as Nan, balancing remarkable wit with compassion. Pat Shortt serves as the film’s primary comedic force, but his bumbling idiocy always feels genuine and heartfelt. Colm is a deeply tragic character and in the hands of a lesser actor, one who would have been profoundly obnoxious. While Shortt and Flanagan maintain their reputations for doing excellent work, the real standout is Kelly Thornton, making her film debut as Emma. The seventeen year-old actress becomes the emotional center of the film, turning in a performance of quiet charm and beauty. In many ways, Emma’s journey towards adulthood becomes the more compelling heart of the film, leaving the treasure hunt feeling like a side-plot.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Life’s a Breeze is a comedy that’s not particularly funny, but only because its too busy being poignant. Its narrative is a bit by the numbers, but what could have been a mundane dramedy is elevated by some incredible performances, particularly from the film’s young lead. Life’s a Breeze keeps the detrimental effects of poverty in the corner of its eye while focusing on what money means to one family, how it will change them, or perhaps more importantly, how it won’t.