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New Release Review - MAMMAL

A middle-aged woman invites a troubled teenage boy into her home.



Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Rebecca Daly

Starring: Rachel Griffiths, Michael McElhatton, Barry Keoghan



Mammal unspools in a naturalistic and organic fashion, and though it's not above a cliche or two - a character's attempt to escape their ennui by holding their breath underwater is one that's particularly tiresome - it's a largely gripping work that adds Daly to the growing list of women directors to keep an eye on.



There's a curious trend of gritty Irish dramas starring acclaimed Antipodean actresses in matriarchal roles. We've seen Toni Collette as the alcoholic mother of Jack Reynor's taxi driver in Gerard Barrett's Glassland. Kerry Fox played an over-protective Mum to Moe Dunford's mentally challenged young man in Terry McMahon's Patrick's Day. Now we have Rachel Griffith as an absent mother who finds an unorthodox method of dealing with her son's death in Rebecca Daly's Mammal.
Griffith's Margaret is a melancholy thrift store owner whose sole pleasure comes from visits to her local public swimming pool. Her routine life is disrupted by two events. Firstly, her ex-husband, Matt (Michael McElhatton),  makes a surprise appearance bearing bad news - their son, whom Margaret hasn't seen since walking out on him as an infant, has been missing for several weeks. Then, while closing her store one evening, she discovers a teenage boy, Joe (Barry Keoghan), nursing a stab wound in a nearby alley. Margaret takes him and patches up the wound, but the boy disappears. Later she runs into him at the swimming pool and offers him a temporary stay in her spare room, which he accepts.
What results is Margaret's descent into a misjudged sexual relationship with the young man, whose nocturnal life as a 'gay-bashing' thug is unbeknownst to her. Things turn decidedly transgressive when Matt informs her that the body of their son has been fished out of a canal and donates a bag of the boy's clothes to Margaret's shop. In a move Hitchcock would appreciate, Margaret passes on her dead son's clothes to Joe. Exactly how transgressive the relationship is could have been made clearer by alerting us to the exact age of Joe, as Keoghan is an actor who could fall anywhere within the 15-25 age range, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if Margaret's actions were legally sound. Religious symbolism involving clipped angel wings also went over this writer's Godless head, but that's on me.
Writer-director Rebecca Daly's 2011 debut The Other Side of Sleep, which employed similarly elliptical storytelling to that found here, felt like a poor imitation of an Andrea Arnold film, but Daly has improved immensely in the intervening years, and Mammal is constructed well enough to stand alongside the likes of Arnold. This is the sort of film the Brits pull off in their sleep, but Irish attempts at urban grittiness have in the past come across as slightly embarrassing, largely because they try too hard. Mammal unspools in a naturalistic and organic fashion, and though it's not above a cliche or two - a character's attempt to escape their ennui by holding their breath underwater is one that's particularly tiresome - it's a largely gripping work that adds Daly to the growing list of women directors to keep an eye on.
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