There are different types of quiet. There’s the quiet of peace and serenity, and the quiet of repression and shame. There’s the quiet of contented, absorbing work. And there’s the quiet of fear, the kind of lonely silence a bullied child might retreat into when she hears the heavy tread of an impatient adult on the stairs, or the catcalling of other, brasher kids. Colm Bairéad’s gentle, straightforward, largely Irish-language “The Quiet Girl” has an ear finely attuned to all those types of hush, and to the tender feelings they can contain.
Nine-year-old Cáit, played in a lovely, worried debut by Catherine Clinch (if you’re looking for the next Saoirse Ronan, you might well have found her here) is never going to be loud. The easily overlooked kid in a household of scrappier siblings, she is first seen hiding in the fields while her frustrated mother, pregnant again, calls for her to come in. At school she’s miserable, rejected by her peers, and at home she’s mostly invisible, especially to her ne’er-do-well father (Michael Patric), who is too busy gambling to work much on the family farm, let alone to take much notice of this mousy little thing under his feet. So when her mother’s wealthier cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and her farmer husband Seán (Andrew Bennett) offer to take the girl off her parents’ hands for a summer, Cáit’s dad drives her the three hours to Waterford and deposits her with them, with something close to relief.
Turns out, Eibhlín and Seán are almost as un-talkative as Cáit, though Eibhlín especially gives her a warm welcome and a much-needed bath. “If there are secrets in a house, there is shame in that house. There are no secrets in this house,” she tells Cáit kindly, brushing out her hair, forgiving her bed-wetting, doting on her in a way the girl has clearly never experienced. But while nothing is a secret, a lot goes unspoken, like the reason Cáit’s bedroom has choo-choo train wallpaper, and why the clothes she’s given are all shirts and trousers, such as a little boy might wear.
“The Quiet Girl” is set — with remarkable acuity thanks to Emma Lowney’s excellent production design — in an early ’80s rural Ireland that, but for the cars and the TV shows, does not look a whole lot different from the Ireland of 30 or 40 years prior. But though we know this was a time when more dramatic and violent tragedies were unfolding nearby, Bairéad’s script, based on a short story by Claire Keegan, remains resolutely focused on the smaller end of the scale, the intimate, ordinary sorrows of loneliness and loss and coming of age. These themes are flattered by the exceptional photography of DP Kate McCullough, which is full of steady, deep compositions in which we look through doors or hallways to characters whose framing communicates everything that their taciturn dispositions do not. Cáit blossoms fractionally under Eibhlín’s “minding.” But the clouds seem to clear from her eyes especially as the frostiness between her and the gruff, hardworking Seán begins to thaw.
Set to Stephen Rennick’s sweet score, which tiptoes round the edges of the film’s airy sound design, the simplicity of the story and the desire to do right by all the characters (except perhaps a prying neighbor who is sketched rather cattily) is an undoubted strength. But this is also a romantic vision of the sadness that can settle around a solitary kid like a shawl on her shoulders, and on occasion the deep investment in the long silences and sorrowful gazes that mostly make up Cáit’s life can teeter close to preciousness. When it does, though, there’s always Clinch’s superbly modulated performance, and the way the compassionate camera lavishes on Cáit all the attention that quiet, nice kids like her rarely receive, to bring us back onside.
At a stretch, we could see in Cáit’s reticence some sort of analogy for her native Irish tongue — there’s a certain eloquence in having such an inarticulate character speak a language that was, and still is, in danger of being silenced. But the unwavering focus of Bairéad’s impressively controlled debut feature doesn’t really allow for much subtext, nor for much surprise. Even that doesn’t really matter: Though you can foretell the way the story must end right from the moment Seán bids Cáit a curt goodnight without even turning his head from the TV, the cumulative power of “The Quiet Girl” means that when that ending duly comes, it’s remarkably moving. For all the things that can be lost in the quiet, sometimes people can find each other there.