Review: A mother rebuilds her family’s life in the Irish drama ‘Herself’
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The last thread to snap before one is homeless is typically a lost job or a cruel landlord, but for all too many women, it’s the urgent need to get out of one living situation before another can be secured. A young Dublin mother’s escape from an abusive household with her two children is what sets off the rootlessness at the center of the Phyllida Lloyd-directed Irish drama “Herself.”
But it is this embattled character’s insistent drive to break ground on a better existence — in this case, through self-building an affordable house from scratch — that gives this modest film with a big metaphor its engine of uplift.
Homelessness in Ireland is a globally recognized crisis and one that’s only getting worse because of COVID-19. Don’t expect a Ken Loach-style diatribe on the breakdown of civilization from “Herself” though. The story’s heroine, Sandra, winningly played by Irish actress Clare Dunne, who also wrote the story and co-scripted (with Malcolm Campbell), hews closer to the kind of resilient figure anchoring a classic working-class heart-tugger, a woman who inspires a cheering section instead of neo-realist pity.
Lloyd, directing her first film since telling a most opposite tale in “The Iron Lady” — that of a powerful woman (Meryl Streep’s Oscar-winning Margaret Thatcher) on the wane — is very much in sync with the plucky empowerment saga Dunne wants to tell and embody. (It’s collaborative synchronicity born from the pair’s work together in theater.) Yet that silver-lining nature is also what keeps “Herself” from entirely distinguishing itself, too often leaving an admittedly powerful story about female fortitude to rely on schematics and clichés instead of the accumulated impact of its many well-played human details.
Early on, those realistic snippets help paint an indelible picture of fast-thinking survival. While Sandra and her grade-school daughters Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann) initially find temporary refuge in an upscale hotel that accepts city funds (but won’t let her enter from the front), she navigates the stress of two menial jobs, getting the kids to school, finding new accommodations that take rent assistance and dealing with visitation rules that keep her in contact with a husband (Ian Lloyd Anderson) who insists he’s changed.
It’s Sandra though who transforms when an online video convinces her that loan-financed DIY house-building is her path to independence. This is also when the movie becomes worryingly enamored with feel-good coincidences. Generosity comes by way of the crusty but kind widow (Harriet Walter) for whom she cleans — who offers Sandra an unused, idyllic patch of land on her property. Then there’s the friendly contractor (Conleth Hill of “Game of Thrones”) who stands up for her toward a condescending employee at a hardware store and eventually offers to run a volunteer crew of builders. An affable, eager bunch, naturally, one that looks good in cheery montages of lugging, sawing and hammering, and that gets over hiccups and disagreements.
Good luck is a story sauce that few movies pull off, but the warmth in a message of domino-effect goodwill — the self-reliance that sparks the helping hand that builds community that spreads feelings of personal reward and bolsters the conscience — is one Lloyd and Dunne handle nicely , especially in the dynamic between Sandra and her kids and what it says about parenting affected by trauma. Even when the custody battle eventually hinges on a courtroom opportunity right out of a domestic melodrama, the filmmakers score points in articulating the biases that hinder mothers like Sandra when they try to start over.
For the most part, “Herself,” with its easygoing bonhomie and coterie of solid performances, allows one to look past the narrative’s guardrail dents until a regrettable late swerve toward jarring punishment. Hard to know whether to blame the architect or the contractor, but it’s a pointless assertion of bad-news bona fides when we had already been conditioned to accept — and even cherish — a cozy nest of likability and resilience.
Rated: R, for language and some domestic violence
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 30 in limited release where theaters are open; available Jan. 8 on Amazon Prime
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