It’s no secret that fairy tales and dreams have a good deal in common. The action of both often rolls onward with a seeming inevitability, a certain sense of fatedness. Strange landscapes fade in and out of view, at once familiar and bizarre. Outsized characters show up on the scene, engulfed by an aura of meaningfulness so thick it’s nearly impossible to slice. A vampy witch on your doorstep, for instance, brandishing a single perfect apple.
Although writer-director Lance Daly’s Kisses is in many ways a dark fairy tale for adults, the film plays more like a dream, unspooling in a sort of foggy-yet-intense way, leaving us — the dreamers — to look back on the film as a half-jogged memory. It’s haunting and crisply vivid in parts, but definitely fuzzy around the edges.
An Irish film that premiered in 2008 and made the festival rounds for two years before opening stateside this month, the understated Kisses follows Dylan and Kylie, two youngsters who live in neighboring houses and share an endearing camaraderie. After ditching their respective fucked-up families, the kids plunge together towards Dublin, where they spend an afternoon and a long night scrabbling through malls and alleyways and skating rinks and urban seaminess in search of nothing so much as a bit of peace and freedom.
Kisses begins at Christmastime in a bleak, working-class Irish town, where the holiday season is furnishing precious little joy for Dylan and Kylie (played by refreshingly unpolished rookies Shane Curry and Kelly O’Neill). Both children — whose heavily accented speech, like most dialogue in the film, is mercifully subtitled — strain quietly against the harnesses of their home lives. They’ve been buffeted, sadly, into premature maturity; Dylan’s a pro at avoiding his menacing father, while Kylie gets sent out to wheel her infant sister up and down the dingy block.
Tensions snap when Dylan intervenes to defend his mum in a nasty marital scuffle. With his father in hot pursuit, Dylan flees upstairs. Across the alleyway, Kylie’s camped out in her bedroom, in hiding from a slimy uncle’s advances. Kylie, perched in her room, sees Dylan in his. Pocketing her carefully-hoarded savings, Kylie rushes outside, grabs a ladder, helps Dylan clamber out of his window, and suggests that they skip town. So they do. The two clamber aboard a barge floating along the River Liffey and coast towards Dublin with the vague intention of seeking shelter with Dylan’s brother.
What ensues is not so much a plot-driven escapade as a leisurely collection of events. The camera lingers on the river, on Dublin’s neon signs, on the faces of the kids. Kelly O’Neill (as Kylie) has an impressive paintbox of emotions close to hand; she cycles from glee to fear to joy to sleepiness with a natural ease that plays well in the film’s understated scenes, many of which eschew dialogue altogether. The children indulge in a shopping spree, linger with a streetcorner busker, set out to find Dylan’s elusive older brother, and otherwise drift through the city. We’re simply watching two children at play, and in flight.
Daly is a markedly casual director, favoring home-video-ish sweeps of the lens and lingering montages that lead to nothing in particular, and this approach seems to be both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, Daly treats violence and ugliness without reaching for any of the scare tactics (loud noises, screechy music, and the like) that directors normally use to treat this sort of material. But the film’s softspokenness also means that Kisses doesn’t ever quite rivet you or leave you with a distinct impression.
At some point, quite subtly, the film’s palette flips from black-and-white to color, and it’s clear that some Wizard of Oz themes are being riffed on: youth escapes wickedness at home, youth encounters wickedness in a strange land, etc. The film is scattered with similar little clues that bring to mind other stories and legends (Bob Dylan included), but it seems unlikely that we’re meant to give Kisses the English-seminar treatment. We could ask annoying questions like: Is the barge captain who brings the children to Dublin a modern-day Charon ferrying souls across the Styx? But I’m pretty sure we’d be better off just leaving things be.
The allusions in Kisses seem intended, basically, to cultivate something of a fairy-tale feel. And interestingly, all the portentous-seeming characters and serendipitous events that Kisses introduces are no sooner encountered than stripped of their magic. And that’s the most heartbreaking thing — the kids have to deal with sadness and evil, but it’s not in the least poetic. None of the drama of turrets or monsters or airborne carpets. As Kylie offhandedly mutters, “There is no devil, just people.”
Kisses is playing in San Francisco at the Kabuki and at City Cinemas Village East in NYC.