Review: ‘Here Are the Young Men,’ starring Dean-Charles Chapman, Finn Cole, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Travis Fimmel

June 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dean-Charles Chapman, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Finn Cole in “Here Are the Young Men” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Here Are the Young Men”

Directed by Eoin Macken

Culture Representation: Taking place in Dublin from June to August 2003, the dramatic film “Here Are the Young Men” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three teenage hoodlum friends spend their first summer out of high school by making mischief and partying, but they are haunted by witnessing a car accident that killed a young girl, and their friendship will be tested by other issues.

Culture Audience: “Here Are the Young Men” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a coming-of-age film about rebellious youth, but the movie is ultimately a shallow exercise in glorifying criminal activities.

Finn Cole, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Dean-Charles Chapman and Anya Taylor-Joy in “Here Are the Young Men” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

Rebellious teens have been the subjects of countless movies, so audiences need to have a reason to care when yet another one of these stories is made into a movie. Unfortunately, “Here Are the Young Men” should have been titled “Here Are the Young Men Being Glorified for Getting Away With Serious Crimes.” The movie tries to be artsy with some psychedelic-like hallucinations throughout the film, and the cast members do the best that they can with the weak material that they’ve been given. But it’s not enough to save this very hollow film that tries to justify atrocious and violent crimes with the excuse that angry young men just need to let off some steam.

“Here Are the Young Men” was written and directed by Eoin Macken, who adapted the movie from Rob Doyle’s 2014 novel of the same name. And this movie, which attempts to be a gritty portrayal of working-class life in Dublin in 2003, actually comes across as a fantasy of what it would be like to be a teenage male hoodlum who gets away with everything. The movie gives very little thought to the victims who have been hurt by the increasingly despicable actions of one of the main characters. Instead, the movie puts all the sympathy on the trio of hooligans who are the cause of all the mayhem in the story.

The movie takes place from June to August 2003, the first summer after pals Matthew Connolly (played by Dean-Charles Chapman), Joseph Kearney (played by Finn Cole) and Rez (played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) have left high school. Matthew and Rez have graduated, while Joseph (the most problematic one in the trio) was expelled. Viewers can assume these alcohol-guzzling pub-hoppers are all 18 years old, the minimum legal age to drink alcohol in Ireland. It’s one of the few legal things that these hoodlums do when they party.

The movie’s opening scene takes place at a funeral attended by Matthew. He says in a voiceover: “They say that the summer you finish school is the best time of your life because it’s your final summer of freedom and you become men. It’s important. I just didn’t realize how important it would be. This is a real story … I’m sorry for some of the choices we made.”

The funeral is shown again at the end of the film. But in between, the majority of the story is a flashback, told from Matthew’s perspective, of what happened during that fateful summer. Opening with the funeral scene was artistically a big mistake, because viewers will immediately know that a major character is going to die in this story. And it’s not going to be Matthew.

And so, there’s no real suspense or surprise when that death happens, because the tension builds to such a predictable point that it’s fairly easy to guess who’s going to die. The only real question is how will that person die? The cause of death is also easily predicted during a pivotal moment in the last third of the film.

The flashback begins with Matthew in a meeting with his school headmaster Mr. Landerton (played by Ralph Ineson), who is conducting an exit interview, as is the school’s custom with all graduating students. Matthew seems bored and reluctant to tell Mr. Landerton what Matthew’s plans are after high school, probably because Matthew doesn’t have any plans.

Matthew says, “If it makes you happy for your report, just write that I’ve improved as an individual, grown into a respectable young scholar—and it’s all because of you.” Mr. Landerton shakes Matthew hand and says that he knows that things have been difficult for Matthew. Mr. Landerton adds, “Be careful with your choices.”

What has been difficult for Matthew? It’s not fully explained in the movie, but Matthew’s father is no longer in the home. Based on the way that this absentee father is not discussed in Matthew’s household, it’s implied that his father isn’t dead but has abandoned the family. Matthew is an only child and he lives with mother Lynn Connolly (played by Susan Lynch), who seems to have a drinking problem because in the few times she’s seen, she’s holding an alcoholic drink and/or appears to be drunk.

Joseph also lives in a single-parent household, but with his father Mark Kearney (played by Conleth Hill), who pays more attention to what’s on television than he pays attention to Joseph. The movie doesn’t explain what happened to Joseph’s mother. Joseph has an older brother named Dwayne Kearney (played by Chris Newman), who lives in another household and appears in one of Joseph’s many hallucinations. Joseph is the angriest and most mentally disturbed of the three pals, as it becomes very clear later on in the story.

Rez is the friend who is the most mysterious. In other words, he’s the most underwritten of the three friends. He doesn’t even have a last name in the movie. Nothing is shown of Rez’s home life. All viewers know about Rez is that he likes to dress all in black, he does a lot of drugs, and he makes money by selling drugs. Rez is also a lot more sensitive than he’s willing to show most people. One of the few people he opens up to is another teenager named Julie (played by Lola Petticrew), who has a sexual relationship with Rez that can best be described as “friends with benefits.”

The graduation ceremony at the school is never shown. However, it isn’t long after Matthew and Rez get their “freedom” that Matthew, Rez and Joseph decide to go back to their school to vandalize it during the daytime when the school is on a summer break. They start by going to a local church, popping some pills and mocking the communion ritual, with Rez saying “Body of Christ,” before he swallows a pill.

Then, they head to the school and spraypaint graffiti on an instruction board. The graffiti they put on the board shows a penis and a stick figure with the words, “Luke, I am your father, but you are my god.” And because Joseph is the group’s biggest troublemaker, he throws a desk through a closed window, thereby shattering the window with no regard that someone could be hit by the desk or the broken glass on the street below. (Fortunately, no one gets injured.)

The mayhem continues when they go to the school’s parking garage. Joseph sees Mr. Landerton’s car and starts destroying it with a crowbar. During this vandalism, he has a rage-filled rant, as if he’s taking out all of his anger on Mr. Landerton, who expelled him from the school. After a while, Rez joins in on the destruction too.

Matthew shows some restraint and seems reluctant to participate in this senseless act of violence. Just then, Mr. Landerton shows up with some police officers. And this is where the movie starts to go downhill with a very unrealistic scene. Instead of the cops immediately arresting these young punks, Mr. Landerton just stands there and tries to reason with these vandals.

First, the headmaster asks Matthew if he really wants to be a part of this criminal activity. In defiance, Matthew chooses to side with his pals, so he bashes one of the car’s outside mirrors. Matthew, Joseph and Rez then climb out a nearby window and run away, with two or three cops in pursuit.

The chase continues through some streets and an alley, but the cops are out of shape and can’t keep with these teenagers. The last cop to keep the chase going eventually gives up in frustration. But here’s the thing that’s so ridiculous about this movie: Matthew, Joseph and Rez don’t face any consequences.

They are never arrested for the vandalism, even though Mr. Landerton knows where they live and could easily send the cops to the teens’ homes to arrest them. But that never happens. Viewers have to assume that Mr. Landerton might have decided not to press charges, but what kind of school headmaster would let anyone get away with all that damage on the school property when the perpetrators were caught in the act?

It’s just one of many plot holes of stupidity that plague this movie, which is really just a showcase to make it look like just because someone is a working-class teen, it’s enough to feel angst and justify committing crimes. We won’t even get into the racial inequalities of what kinds of punishments these teens would experience if they weren’t white. It’s a privileged blind spot that this movie has because its only concern is making it look like these lazy cretins are just going through a rebellious rite of passage.

The reality is that these teens are not “oppressed” in any way and have no good reason for committing any crimes. They might not come from rich families, but they’re not homeless and not scrounging for food. They don’t experience racism, sexism or other forms of discrimination. They have other people (their parents) paying their bills and providing them with a place to live. Rez’s home life isn’t shown, but it’s implied that he doesn’t have to worry about paying rent.

And apparently, even their school headmaster is willing to look the other way and not hold them accountable for their crimes. There’s no logical reason for why this headmaster would be an enabler, when his job would be at stake for letting these destructive teens get away with the vandalism they committed on school property. These are not wealthy kids who can buy their way out of trouble, but there’s an air of bratty entitlement that this movie has that’s just so annoying.

Later in the movie, Matthew gets a job at an auto tire shop. It’s one of the few mature and responsible things that he does in the story. But then, there’s a scene where Matthew deliberately sets the shop on fire. And yet, the movie never shows him facing any consequences and never mentions what happened as a result of the fire. In fact, the rest of the movie acts like the fire never even happened. It’s all just sloppy screenwriting.

One thing that the movie constantly brings up is how a certain car accident affected these three troublemaking friends. Shortly after they get away with the vandalism at their school, Matthew, Joseph and Rez are on a busy commercial street when they witness a fatal car accident. The driver hit and killed a girl who was about 7 or 8 years because she suddenly ran out on the street. The girl’s mother rushed to her side and wailed for help.

On the surface, the three buddies all try to get on with their lives and continue their partying and mischief making. But seeing someone die right before their eyes is something that has a psychological effect on them. Matthew tries to “clean up” his life a little bit by getting a job at the tire shop. (It’s all for nothing though, because Matthew ends up setting the shop on fire.) Rez falls into a deep depression. Joseph develops a macabre obsession to see someone else die in front of him.

Joseph drops many hints that after seeing someone die, he now has a desire to become a murderer. When he tries to talk about it with his friends, they give him strange looks and he says he’s just joking. Joseph’s increasingly twisted mindset is manifested in a series of hallucinations centered on a TV talk show that Joseph’s father Mark likes to watch.

The program is called “Big Show,” and it’s hosted by a black-haired unnamed man (played by Travis Fimmel) who is styled to look like a menacing satanic figure, but without devil horns. His has a pointy beard and long sideburns and a constant sinister smirk. In the hallucinations about “Big Show,” this TV host brings on certain guests to taunt them, humiliate them and test their endurance.

At various points in the movie, Joseph and Matthew imagine themselves as guests on “Big Show.” Much of the program revolves around the TV presenter talking about masculinity and what it means to be a real man. In one “episode,” the presenter has a woman called Angel Dust (played by Noomi Rapace, in a cameo) on stage and ends up sexually groping her without consent, as the all-male audience cheers.

Sometimes, in Joseph’s “Big Show” hallucinations, his brother Dwayne is in the audience too. It’s supposed to represent Joseph’s conscious or subconscious desire to get his brother Dwayne’s approval. The more violent crimes that Joseph commits, the more he seems to get approval from the “Big Show” host, until it reaches the point where Joseph struts around as if he’s the star of the show.

Matthew’s “Big Show” hallucinations show him as a more hesitant guest, since in real life, he’s the only one out of the three friends who seems to be a little uncomfortable with violent crimes, and he tries to make an honest living. Joseph is never seen doing any work (legal or illegal) in this story, but early on in the movie he mentions that he wants to be a video game developer. Joseph says he has an idea for an Irish Republican Army video game that he wants to call “The Provos.”

Someone who occasionally hangs out with these troublemakers is a fellow teen named Jen (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who was in the same graduating class as Matthew and Rez. Jen is smart and level-headed. Matthew has a big crush on her, and the feeling might be mutual. They have typical flirty banter where they try to pretend that they aren’t as attracted to each other as they really are.

Jen wants to leave Dublin as soon as she can. Her dream is to live in the United States and become an entertainer or a fashion designer. In the meantime, she sings at a local nightclub. (In one of these nightclub scenes, she performs a cover version of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control.”) Taylor-Joy is a good singer, but the scenes of her on stage don’t add much to the story, except to show Matthew ogling Jen. The movie’s soundtrack, which has several songs by Magnets & Ghosts, is mostly alternative rock and some electronica.

Joseph also wants to go to America, and he gets a chance to take a trip to visit the U.S. at one point in the movie. (“Here Are the Young Men” director Macken has a quick cameo as an unnamed homeless man who has an unfortunate encounter with Joseph.) Joseph is never actually seen in America, but he’s made videos of his trip. Some of those videos are shown in the movie.

When Joseph comes back to Dublin, he reveals certain things about himself that show he’s gone beyond vandalism to committing crimes that are even more violent and disturbing. Matthew, Rez and Jen are all affected by Joseph’s increasingly unhinged, out-of-control behavior. And in a predictable teen movie like this one, that means it’s all going to culiminate with some heavy melodrama.

“Here Are the Young Men” takes a very disappointing approach of having mayhem for mayhem’s sake. The hallucinatory “Big Show” scenes aren’t very clever. And the movie’s best and most authentic-looking scene isn’t even about the boys’ friendship but it’s a scene where Matthew and Jen have a big argument over something that happened at a party.

It’s a scene that affects Matthew and Jen’s relationship and brings up very realistic issues about how perceptions are affected by intoxication from alcohol and drugs, which can impair the ability to give consent in sexual situations. The scene also candidly addresses gender roles and expectations in dating relationships. And it’s where Matthew gets some awareness of how the toxic masculinity that he participates in and enables can hit closer to home than he expected.

Unfortunately, this awareness comes so late in the story that it’s questionable how much Matthew might have really learned to become a better person when he makes a certain decision in reaction to something that upset him. Ironically, for a movie called “Here Are the Young Men,” the character of Jen is the most fascinating and has the most interesting things to say. However, she is written as a secondary character.

The scenes with Jen and Matthew have a familiar “will they or won’t they get together” arc that’s often seen in teen dramas. However, Taylor-Joy (who’s an award-winning actress on the rise) and Chapman (who was quite memorable in his role as a young British soldier in the World War I movie “1917”) are good-enough in their roles to bring believable emotions to characters that wouldn’t be as watchable if portrayed by less-talented actors. Jen is about the same age as Matthew, Rez and Joseph, but she’s much more emotionally mature than they are.

The characters of Joseph and Rez both struggle with personal demons more than Matthew does. Joseph’s anger is explosive and mostly directed at other people, while Rez tends to be more introverted and self-destructive. Cole and Ferdia-Peelo give convincing but not particularly outstanding performances of how Joseph and Rez mentally unravel in their own ways. All the parental/authority figures are essentially just background characters who don’t have much influence in what these teens say or do.

The main problem with “Here Are the Young Men” isn’t the cast members’ performances but in the way that writer/director Macken seems more concerned with showing how much worse the criminal chaos can get for these teen delinquents, rather than any true character development. There’s a tone throughout the movie that’s seems to say, “You thought what so-and-so did was bad, just wait until you see what this person does next.” After a while, it feels very hollow and lacking in suspense, since apparently the movie is intent on making it look like Dublin law enforcement is incompetent and that these three law-breaking jerks are untouchable.

This movie starts to look very unrealistic when these known hoodlums, who commit their crimes out in the open, never seem to be at any real risk of beng arrested. The movie becomes a repetitive series of crimes and drug-induced hallucinations that ultimately serve no purpose except to show these characters getting away with these crimes. The movie didn’t need to have any moralistic preaching to be improved. By the end of the film, viewers just won’t care about these self-absorbed troublemakers who are so bored with their lives that they create damaging problems for themselves and other people.

Well Go USA released “Here Are the Young Men” on digital and VOD on April 27, 2021.

Review: ‘Herself,’ starring Clare Dunne, Harriet Walter, Conleth Hill, Ian Lloyd Anderson, Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann

January 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Clare Dunne, Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann in “Herself” (Photo by Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios)


Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Culture Representation: Taking place in Dublin, the drama “Herself” features a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A single mother, who has broken up with her abusive ex, decides to build her own house, but she has to hide these activities from the government’s social services department that is handling her case.

Culture Audience: “Herself” will appeal primarily to people interested in emotionally realistic dramas about women who rebuild their lives after a traumatic breakup.

Clare Dunne, Molly McCann and Ian Lloyd Anderson in “Herself” (Photo by Pat Redmond/Amazon Studios)

The concept of a woman who tries to move on from a toxic relationship has been the plot of too many movies to count. However, the compelling drama “Herself” (directed by Phyllida Lloyd) truly has something unique to offer: It’s a story of a single mother who metaphorically and literally rebuilds her life by deciding she’s going to build a house where she and her two underage daughters will live. The movie (which was filmed on location in Dublin) has some moments that are a bit predictable, but there are other parts of the story that admirably avoid clichés. Thanks to skillful direction and impressive performances from the cast members, “Herself” is a cut above the typical “single mother trying to make it on her own” movie that’s become a subgenre of a lot of female-oriented entertainment.

Clare Dunn, who co-wrote the “Herself” screenplay with Malcolm Campbell, stars in the movie as Sandra Kelly, a loving and devoted single mother to two daughters: sassy and inquisitive Emma (played by Ruby Rose O’Hara), who’s about 6 or 7 years old, and sweet-natured and friendly Molly (played by Molly McCann), who’s about 4 or 5 years old.

The movie opens with a scene of all three of them seemingly in domestic bliss in their house’s kitchen, where Emma and Molly are applying makeup to their mother’s face. Sandra explains to her daughters that the birthmark below her left eye (the birthmark looks like a bruise) is God’s way of marking her uniqueness. And then, Sandra and her daughters dance and sing in the kitchen while Sia’s “Chandelier” is playing in the background.

Suddenly, Emma’s and Molly’s father Gary Mullen (played by Ian Lloyd Anderson) comes home. Molly and Emma run to him and eagerly greet him. Gary seems happy to see them too, but he’s not happy to see Sandra, who is his live-in girlfriend. Gary tells Emma and Molly to step outside for a moment because he wants to talk to their mother. And that’s when things get ugly.

Sandra senses that all hell is about to break loose when Gary waves some paperwork and cash and angrily tells Sandra that he found out she’s going to leave him. Before Emma leaves the room to go outside, Sandra frantically whispers to Emma to do something that was a pre-arranged emergency plan. Emma runs to a playhouse in the backyard (where Molly is hiding), grabs a lunchbox, and runs to a nearby convenience store.

When Emma arrives at the store, she opens the lunchbox to show it to the store clerk. Inside the lunchbox is a written message that says: “Call 999. My life is in danger. Sandra Kelly. 14 Hazelwood Road.”

Back at the house, Gary has begun viciously assaulting Sandra. He throws her to the ground and starts punching her and grabbing her hair. And then, he stomps hard on her left hand while she cries out in agony.

The next scene shows Sandra, Emma and Molly temporarily moving into a motel. Sandra has left Gary for good, and it’s later revealed that she had him arrested for domestic violence. Sandra has been granted full custody of the children, but Gary (who works in construction) has visitation rights. Gary is currently living at home with his parents Michael (played by Lorcan Cranitch) and Tina (played by Tina Kellegher) because he doesn’t get enough steady work in construction to be able to afford his own place.

Because this case involves family court and because Sandra doesn’t have enough money to rent her own place, Sandra has to apply for council housing. She’s assigned to a sympathetic social worker named Jo (played by Cathy Belton), who is very willing to help her. Sandra has two jobs (she works as a restaurant/pub waitress and as a housecleaner), but she doesn’t make enough money at both jobs to be able to pay her bills without government assistance.

Sandra’s messy breakup from Gary, as well as her housing issues, aren’t the only problems that Sandra is dealing with right now. When Gary stomped on her left hand, it left nerve damage that might be permanent. And considering that Sandra works in jobs where she needs the use of both hands, she’s concerned about how her injury might affect her livelihood. Emotionally, Sandra is also having a rough time because she’s grieving over her beloved widowed mother, who died six months ago.

Sandra’s mother was the housecleaner for a retired medical doctor named Peggy (played by Harriet Walter), a frequently stern and moody widow who lives alone. When Sandra’s mother died, Sandra inherited the housecleaner job. In the movie’s early scenes with Peggy and Sandra, it’s shown that Peggy is a demanding and very cranky boss, whose bad temper seems to be exacerbated because she’s recovering from hip surgery. When Sandra tries to help Peggy (who uses a walker) physically move about the house, Peggy snaps at her and says she doesn’t like to be treated as if she’s old.

One day, while reading a storybook to her kids about someone who builds a house, Sandra gets curious about what it would take to get a low-cost home built. When she’s at Peggy’s house, Sandra secretly uses Peggy’s laptop computer to look up the information. Sandra finds online videos of a do-it-yourself home building expert, who describes how to build a low-cost house. The videos inspire Sandra, but without owning any land to build a home, she thinks it’s an unattainable dream for her.

However, Peggy finds out about Sandra’s online searches and surprises Sandra by telling her that Sandra can use Peggy’s spacious backyard as the place to build her home. Sandra, who is the type of person who is too proud to look for pity or accept “handouts” from people she knows, initially refuses the offer because she doesn’t want to be thought of as a charity case. She’s also hesitant because Sandra already applied for council housing. Building her own house would forfeit that application.

Sandra asks Peggy why she is suddenly being so generous to her. Peggy confides in Sandra that Sandra’s mother was more than an employee; she was also a very good friend who got Peggy through some tough times. This revelation is why Sandra changes her mind to accept Peggy’s offer, because Sandra now knows that in order to honor her deceased mother, she should start thinking of Peggy as a friend too. This housing agreement gradually thaws Peggy’s cold attitude toward Sandra, and they eventually grow to like and respect each other.

Peggy’s adult daughter Grainne (played by Rebecca O’Mara) is very skeptical of this housing arrangement, because she doesn’t think the land should be given so freely to someone whom Peggy barely knows. But Peggy impatiently brushes away those concerns and says she has a right to do what she wants with the land that she owns. Peggy makes it clear that she’s determined to help Sandra fulfill her dream of building her own home, which Peggy offers to fund as a loan.

With donated land and enough money to buy building materials, Sandra’s next step is to research what she can do on her budget. She goes to a hardware store to get price estimates and ask questions. Sandra doesn’t get much help from the store clerk, but she meets someone at the store named Aidan “Aido” Deveney, a no-nonsense, middle-aged man who owns his own construction and civil engineering company. It’s not a big company, but Aido has the experience that Sandra needs for this project.

Sandra asks for Aido’s help to build the house, but he declines for three reasons: (1) He says that he rarely does contract work; (2) Sandra wouldn’t be able to afford him if he did; and (3) He’s been having recent heart problems. Sandra doesn’t have the budget to afford a team of construction workers, and Aido warns her that it will be difficult for her to find people who will build the house for little or no payment. Sandra plans to do a lot of the hands-on construction work, but obviously she can’t do it alone.

Despite getting rejected by Aido when she initially asks for his help, Sandra is persistent and won’t take no for an answer. She has a hunch that Aido might know Gary and might know what an awful person Gary is. When she tells Aido that Gary Mullen is her ex and that she’s in desperate need of a home for her and her daughters, Aido seems to understand why Sandra might need the help that she’s requesting.

And so, Aido eventually agrees to do the contract job for less than his usual salary. Aido’s young adult son Francis (played by Daniel Ryan), who happens to have Down syndrome, works with Aido and gives Sandra an old pair of construction work shoes that she ends up wearing during the build. The close-ups of Sandra putting on the shoes are a little heavy-handed in showing how the shoes are a metaphor for her stepping outside her comfort zone and trying something that she’s never done before.

Some of “Herself” is a little corny, but the movie is so earnest in its intentions that it’s easy to forgive these minor flaws. For example, on the day that Aido and Sandra break ground on the construction site, Aido hands Sandra a shovel and says, “We’ll let herself do the honors.” (It’s at this point that viewers know this line is the inspiration for the movie’s title.)

Later in the movie, during another teamwork construction scene that’s supposed to be inspirational, the dance-pop hit “Titanium” (by David Guetta featuring Sia) is turned up to full volume on the movie’s soundtrack. The song’s chorus is “You shoot me down, but I won’t fall. I am titanium.” It’s an obvious anthem reflecting Sandra’s gradual self-empowerment.

It should come as no surprise that the construction of the house doesn’t always go smoothly. Sandra only has time to work on the house on weekends, which makes the process slower. Aido gets frustrated and threatens to quit unless Sandra can find more people to work on the house.

As luck would have it, Sandra has a waitress co-worker named Amy (played by Ericka Roe), who lives in a self-described “squat” with several people. Amy recruits three of her squat mates to help with the construction: Dariusz (played by Dmitry Vinokurov), a tall and muscular guy who has experience as a construction worker; Yewande (played by Mabel Chah), an outgoing and friendly woman; and Tomo (played by Aaron Lockhart), a jokester who sometimes likes to goof off on the job, much to the annoyance of construction boss Aido.

Sandra also asks for help from a single mother named Rosa (played by Anita Petry), whose daughter Miriam is a friend of Emma and Molly. Rosa politely declines because she’s intimidated by the thought of doing construction work. But what do you know, Sandra finds out that Rosa changed her mind when Rosa just happens to show up on the same day as Amy’s friends. Stranger things have happened in real life, so viewers will have to suspend disbelief at this lucky coincidence that Sandra gets an instantly expanded construction crew on the same day.

Before construction begins, Sandra tells her daughters Emma and Molly that building the house has to be a secret until the house is finished. Sandra knows she could get in trouble for housing fraud because she applied for council housing and claimed she had no other housing options. Sandra also doesn’t want Gary to know about the house’s construction for the same reasons.

While all of this is going on, Gary tries to get back together with Sandra. He tells her that he’s in counseling and that he’ll never abuse her again. He also tries to make her feel guilty by reminding her of happier times and telling her that she’s making a mistake by breaking up their family. These are typical tactics used by abusers, and it’s why many abused people in toxic relationships find it difficult to leave.

A big problem occurs in the visitation arrangement with Gary. Molly becomes increasingly upset at being told that she has to visit with her father. In one incident, Molly locks herself in a closet in an attempt to get out of the visitation. And eventually, Molly refuses to get out of the car when Sandra takes Molly and Emmy to visit Gary. Molly cries and seems afraid of Gary, but she won’t tell Sandra why. Meanwhile, Emma still has a loving relationship with her father and doesn’t seem afraid of him.

Sandra hates to see Molly get so emotionally distressed. And so, over a period of time, Sandra lies to Gary and uses an excuse that Molly is sick, in order to get Molly out of visiting with Gary. But after Molly misses seven or eight visitations, Gary gets suspicious, and a series of events leads him to file a breach of access petition and ask for full custody of Molly and Emma. (This custody battle isn’t spoiler information, since it’s in the movie’s trailer.) It’s eventually revealed why Molly is afraid of her father.

“Herself” accurately shows the gray areas of abusive relationships that explain why abused partners often go back to their abusers. While Gary tries to win back Sandra, she has doubts about whether or not she made the right decision to leave him. He has a charming side, and she knows that her financial situation would be less difficult if she moved back in with Gary. And she still has feelings for him, but she is unsure if he’s really changed his abusive ways.

Like many abused love partners, Sandra has to decide if the person she fell in love with is redeemable and will really stop being abusive, or if the person she fell in love with is gone forever and will eventually become abusive again if they get back together. She admits this confusion when she confides in Peggy over her mixed feelings about giving Gary another chance: “I miss the person he was.”

“Herself” is anchored by Dunne’s above-average performance, because she is able to convey vulnerability and grit with equal aplomb. Sandra is not a saintly mother. She makes mistakes and is sometimes impatient with her children. But there’s no doubt that her motherly love is deep and fierce. It’s what guides almost all of Sandra’s decisions, because she’s thinking of what’s best for her children more than what she thinks is best for herself.

Something happens in the last third of “Herself” that sets the movie apart from how viewers might think the story is going to end. It’s why “Herself,” despite a few hokey moments, ends up being grounded in the realism of life throwing some unexpected curveballs. It speaks to the movie’s larger message of how dealing with setbacks or challenges is much more important than the type of dwelling where someone lives.

Amazon Studios released “Herself” in select U.S. cinemas on December 30, 2020. Amazon Prime Video will premiere the movie on January 8, 2020.

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