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Acting the Maggot

Sundance Institute

Kneecap (2024)

Look, either you think it’s hilarious that a man shouts a well-known terrorist slogan at the point of orgasm, or you’re not going to enjoy “Kneecap.” But not enjoying this movie would be a big mistake. It is simply the best movie ever made about being young in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and a strong new addition to the canon of movies about disaffected youths finding their voices through rapping about sex and drugs. The fact their language is Irish means the movie, and the real-life band of the same name this is about, is a fresh new take on language preservation and so-called minority culture rights. It is the first ever Irish-language movie shown at the Sundance Film Festival, and made with a screaming sense of humor that is, from start to finish, a joy.

Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh and Naoise Ó Cairealláin (Naoise is pronounced Nisha, by the way) play versions of themselves, like Eminem did in “8 Mile.” They’re childhood best friends raised up rough in West Belfast, where Naoise’s dad, Arlo (Michael Fassbender, in his first Irish movie in a decade, and looking happier here than he has onscreen in a while), believes that every word of Irish spoken is a bullet fired for Irish freedom. Arlo learned his Irish in prison*; and his political activism causes so much drama it’s eventually easier for him to fake his own death. Liam Óg and Naoise grow up to pass the time scrounging for drugs and partying, where at a rave in the woods Liam Óg is arrested. He exercises his hard-won right to refuse to speak to the cops in any language but Irish, so Detective Ellis (Josie Walker) grits her teeth and calls Caitlin (Fionnuala Flaherty) to translate. Only Caitlin, who’s a high-profile Irish-language activist working to ensure some new language rights laws are passed, has had a drink and can’t drive to the station. Her equally fluent husband J.J. (J.J. Ó Dochartaigh, also playing a version of himself) agrees to go instead.

J.J. is a music teacher at an Irish-language school, depressed at how unrelatable and boring the texts the kids have to learn from are. (As someone who moved to Belfast to study the Irish language during university, I am probably one of the only film critics in the world who can testify from personal experience that this is the case. Reciting lists of outdated vocabulary is no way to make learning a new language fun.) But in the interrogation room J.J. sees a book of rhymes Liam Óg’s been working on. He pockets the book – and the tabs Liam Óg was holding – but returns it later to the lads with an idea. If they record some of these raps in his little personal studio they might be able to make the Irish language appealing to his students. And considering how little Naoise and Liam Óg have going on and how large Arlo’s influence was over both of them, of course they leap at the offer.

Writer-director Rich Peppiatt (who grew up in Britain but married someone from Northern Ireland) here has managed to entirely capture four important things about Northern Irish culture (the part of the culture that’s cool, that is).

  • Its absolute contempt for authority. The movie’s main opening shot is of Arlo, holding Naoise at his christening, raising a middle finger to a police helicopter overhead. This is one of approximately a million examples.
  • Its unbelievable talent for living in the moment. The frankly gargantuan amount of drugs everyone takes is a understandable when you consider how few opportunities for decent work there are, how much PTSD is still ongoing and how this gleeful hedonism is encouraged by a culture which still profoundly remembers how badly the Troubles tore the city apart.
  • Its sense of humor. There is absolutely nothing that people in Belfast can’t laugh about and very little that’s seen as off-limits or in bad taste, mainly because the humor is not usually mean-spirited. Jokes are to include people; and when someone is ridiculed – like a humorless police officer, perhaps – they’re either being encouraged to drop their pretenses and join in the fun, or being mocked for their refusal to do so. (This is not always appreciated, of course.)
  • Its total respect for hard work. When a pub gig gets rowdily out of hand, Naoise and Liam Óg show up the next morning to clean up the mess without being asked. When J.J. refuses to show his face on stage because he can’t risk his teaching job, Liam Óg rolls his eyes but immediately throws over an Irish-flag balaclava for him to wear instead. J.J. tries it on, they all laugh and call him D.J. Próvai (a terrorist joke), and go onstage to blow the roof off. In a manner of speaking.

Gentle readers might wonder why Liam Óg (which means Little Liam) has a balaclava with a fiddle-dee-dee tourist theme. Why, he wears it during sex with his Protestant lady friend Georgia (a wonderful Jessica Reynolds) of course. They get off by screaming sectarian insults at each other, before discovering, somewhat to their surprise, what they have might be the real thing. It’s in their scenes together that cinematographer Ryan Kernaghan makes best use of his taste for unusual camera angles, allowing the humor of their relationship to be emphasized over the hotness. So-called mixed marriages are still somewhat unusual in Northern Ireland, where the schools are still almost wholly segregated by religion, meaning that the frisson both Georgia and Liam Óg are getting from each other does require more personal bravery than you’d think.

But a lot of normal things require personal bravery in Northern Ireland, such as getting up onstage and talking about your dumb day in your own language. When they rap the lyrics are scrawled onscreen in the style of liner notes, allowing those of us who aren’t fluent speakers to keep up. Kneecap’s music has a propulsive energy to it, the lads are good rappers; and the band is clearly having such a great time onstage that the vibe is one of surprise and delight from the go. But being such an immediate big hit brings some very real danger, and not always from the places where people from gentler towns might expect. Naoise in particular has to juggle risky occasional contact with Arlo and keeping that knowledge from his mother, Arlo’s widow, Dolores (an excellent Simone Kirby, who also stars in Kneecap’s newest music video). She’s been too depressed to leave the house for years, but while Naoise complains about the responsibilities that fall to him as a result, he also fullfils them, and worries about her. And while J.J.’s balaclava might keep his face covered, enough substances are consumed that he sometimes uncovers other parts of him.

It all builds to a completely satisfying climax, which is followed by footage of real and raucous Kneecap gigs from the past few years. This movie is so much fun, it’s going to propel both itself and the band into the stratosphere – although perhaps not in England, where the right-wing press is having a stereotypically marvelous time denouncing the fact the movie was partially funded with British money. But it’s also a fact that Kneecap the band has kickstarted a sea change in the Irish language across the island of Ireland, making it more fun for the kids and forcing the pursed-lip old guard to reconsider what it takes to keep a language alive. “Kneecap” is going to take the world by storm, and it’s good enough the world is going to enjoy it.

And I’m embarrassed I had to get Google Translate’s help to repeat that last sentence: “Ta Kneecap chun an domhan a thógáil le stoirm, agus tá sé maith go leor go mbainfidh an domhan taitneamh as.”

* The most memorable Irish lesson I ever had was a day course deep in west Belfast, where the teacher had had a lengthy enough prison stay he’d earned a Ph.D. I was the youngest student and the only American, and the other attendees were primarily teetotalers and housewives, none of whom were welcoming. In an attempt to liven things up, the teacher acted out for us, in Irish and English both, the seven different stages of drunkenness. I regret to say that not only did the mood get even more judgmental after that, but also that my notes from that day are long lost.


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