Review: ‘Cherrybomb’ by Ivana

published 22 February 2009
written by Ivana

Warning: the review contains mild spoilers

Cherrybomb aka Anti-Disney!

These days, the movie directors, whether newbies or established names, like to play it safe. Few filmmakers are willing to make movies that might be dubbed risky, controversial, or upsetting. This is especially true of the movies intended for younger audiences – as if the kids cannot digest anything but sugary cheesy movies filled with dance routines and a compulsory happyend. Luckily, the pair of Cherrybomb directors, Glenn Leyburn and Lisa Barros D’Sa, although newcomers, were brave enough to take a risk; they decided to omit sugar from the recipe, and to present us with a stylish, yet realistic portrayal of contemporary teenagers.

A few words of information for those of you who do not live in the UK (which Belfast is a part of): the UK has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the developed world; kids as young as 15 get stabbed or beaten to death every day; drugs are easily accessible (a line of cocaine can cost as little as £2); and, binge drinking and drug abuse are widespread among all social classes and generations. Alas, this is real life, and the directors didn’t shy away from the sad reality.

In Cherrybomb, we are introduced to some colourful teenage characters – the leading trio, their friends (the “Carpark gang”) – and the adults around them: be it “ordinary people” or drunkards, drug dealers, “businessmen”. The story is a pretty simple one, and I assume that a majority of you know it already – two best friends Malachy and Luke meet a beautiful girl Michelle who has just moved back to Belfast from London (her dad is Malachy’s boss Dave Crilly). She challenges the boys to compete for her affection, and things soon get wild and crazy. But there’s so much more to Cherrybomb than this main premise. All three leading characters are complex and wonderfully nuanced; the fact that the protagonists are 15-16 year olds explains their insecurities, their inability to acknowledge their true feelings, their bravado, their recklessness, their overly emotional response to things happening around them, and – their stupidity.

Let’s start with Michelle. She is a girl deprived of parental love – her parents are divorced, and clearly disinterested in their own daughter who they treat as a tennis ball. Michelle’s mother sends her to live with her dad, because she can’t cope with her behaviour, but the said dad has other things on his mind – he’s busy running the leisureplex and shagging a teenage girl who also happens to be Michelle’s friend. Crilly’s selfishness frustrates his “princess”, and in turn she deliberately goes against his advices and initiates the ultimate rebellion.

Then, there’s Luke. He lives with his alcoholic father Smiley and “businessman” brother Chris – however his brother actually uses his constructions business to cover up his more profitable, drug related activities. Chris forces Smiley and Luke to sell drugs; Luke has an additional responsibility to look after Smiley, who is completely unreliable, both as a drug dealer and as a father. Among his friends, Luke is perceived as an attractive, flamboyant, carefree bloke; but behind this facade Luke is ashamed of his father, frustrated by his brother (who expects him to become his “business” partner) and utterly unhappy with his entire family setting. His best friend Malachy is basically the only ray of light in his life. As for girls, Luke has no problems getting them, but he disposes of them equally quickly. One of the girls from the carpark gang, Sharon, is madly in love with him, but Luke pays no attention to her, because the entire notion of a stable relationship is alien to him.

Unlike the other two protagonists, Malachy has a stable family life, and he excels at school. His lower middle class parents (his dad is a taxi driver) have high hopes for his future, but they fail to notice that there’s more to their son than just good marks. His parents disapprove his friendship with Luke, but Malachy sticks to his pal and copes well with Luke’s nasty behaviour – because he sees in him a human being, and not just a firestarter. Malachy is clever and self-confident, tolerant and sincere, but he is not an angelic creature – he doesn’t want his friends to see him just as mummy’s nerdy little boy, so he drinks, smokes weed, snorts cocaine, swears and spies on his boss shagging his teenage mistress. However, it is not Luke but Michelle who ultimately pushes him over the edge.

Both boys are strongly attracted to Michelle from the first moment they lay their eyes on her. However, Luke, the local heartthrob, sees her as just one of the many girls and only wants to bed her, while Malachy soon becomes completely infatuated by her. Michelle, who is hungry for attention (because her parents neglect her) is thrilled that both boys are interested in her. Thus she challenges them to compete for her affection by undertaking a series of reckless stunts, which include fighting, stealing and wrecking cars, demolishing properties, etc. Both Luke and Michelle are surprised by the fact that “the good boy” Malachy accepts the competition and doesn’t give up. As the contest gets increasingly dangerous, Luke can afford to do whatever he wants because essentially he’s got nothing to lose; while Malachy jeopardises his good relationship with his parents, his job, and his academic future.

Initially, one is tempted to dismiss Michelle as nothing but a manipulative vixen, but behind the cunning facade she’s just an emotionally starved girl, desperate to win her father’s attention at any cost. Although she seems to have more in common with Luke – another emotionally crippled character – she finds herself attracted to Malachy, disarmed by his sincerity. But, at the same time, she is afraid to love and let love. Halfway through the movie the dynamics of the trio changes, at the point when Luke realises that Malachy has really fallen in love with Michelle (as “profoundly” as any 16-year-old can). Luke freaks out at the possibility of losing his best friend to this girl; and what was Malachy and Luke competing for Michelle, turns into Michelle and Luke competing for Malachy. Or, to be precise: Michelle grows increasingly annoyed by Luke’s crazy antics, while Luke can’t understand Malachy’s infatuation with this girl and is ultimately jealous and baffled by the idea that his best friend would choose Michelle over him.

The entire action in Cherrybomb happens over the span of a weekend, making the movie very intense and fast-paced; and the ultimate rebellion, predictably, results in tragedy which changes the survivors’ lives forever.

Acting wise, the movie relies upon the trio of protagonists – and they don’t disappoint! I suppose the greatest expectations were laid on Rupert Grint’s shoulders, because we were all curious to see whether he could make us forget about Ron Weasley (whom he has played since he was eleven); whether he can suppress his natural comedic instincts and be a successful drama lead; whether he can pull off a thick Norn Iron accent; and whether he has an acting future after Harry Potter. And the answer to all these questions is a big fat YES! There was no trace of Ron Weasley (or Rupert’s other movie characters) there: he completely turned himself into Malachy, and gave a very subtle and realistic performance. It is hard to believe that this is the same actor who always gets the funny lines and handles a majority of slapstick in Harry Potter. Rupert brings a touching sincerity and warmth to the role of Malachy, a boy who falls in love with a girl for the first time, and is willing to risk everything – even his life – just to be with her. Although Malachy does have flaws, Rupert turns him into a highly likeable character, without ever overdoing any emotion or reaction, and thus makes it easy for the audience to relate to him.

Robert Sheehan, on the other hand, gives a completely different performance, because Luke is a completely different character. Luke is flamboyant and extreme, and Robert’s performance is suitably over-the-top in the most positive way: he portrays this tense, edgy, emotionally broken teenager heartbreakingly and persuasively. Robert is definitely a force to reckon with, and he and Rupert play each other off superbly.

If we are to make comparisons, Robert Sheehan has the intense, irrepressible energy which could make him a next Heath Ledger. On the other hand, although I can think of a number of actors who made a successful transition from comedic to dramatic roles (say, Will Smith or Jim Carrey), I’d pinpoint Rupert as a Kevin Spacey in the making. Some of you might remember that Spacey’s first notable movie role was in a comedy (Working Girl), but then he moved on to do Usual Suspects, LA Confidental, Se7en, American Beauty. Spacey has the ability to completely morph into his character and to make us cheer even for the bad guy. Rupert has the same chameleon-like quality and oozes quiet confidence.

The beautiful Kimberley Nixon gives a convincing portrayal of a neglected, insecure girl. She and Rupert Grint have a wonderful on-screen chemistry, and her acting makes some of Rupert’s other on-screen female partners who-shall-not-be-named look quite amateurish. The notorious sex scene is actually a tender love scene, and it is very tastefully done. James Nesbitt is fantastic as Michelle’s father: he generated a lot of laughter, and initially came across as a selfish but relatively benign middle-aged man who suffers from midlife crisis. However, as the movie progresses, he is exposed as an aggressive, violent man, who not only beats up his daughter, but also almost kills one of her friends.

The actors’ accents are excellent, although none of the three leads are Belfast natives. Some of the characters, especially members of Luke’s family, have very thick accents, but even if one can’t quite catch every word they say, the actors are very expressive and they make sure no one misses the point.

The directors’ style is very creative and efficient. Instead of flashy special effects, they opt for an imaginative use of real-life sets (such as leisureplex and carpark), unusual camera angles, lots of close-up shots, expressive colours and clever editing. Although the movie does contain some violent and drug related scenes, and foul language too, I would be surprised if it received an R rating – because even the rawest of scenes are done very stylishly. I believe that the movie can be seen and appreciated by anyone aged 15 and above, provided that they don’t expect a cheesy happyend.

Cherrybomb deals with the challenges of growing up, accepting responsibilities and falling in love for the first time in a realistic way. This powerful, dark, artsy movie is definitely not kiddie-friendly; but, the combination of great performances, beautiful visuals, and uncompromising realism makes it highly recommendable. Anyone interested in an engaging, thrilling and gripping emotional rollercoaster should thoroughly enjoy Cherrybomb.

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