Given how often one of the lead characters in the rollicking Belfast-set comedy Kneecap flashes his bare bottom, adorned with the words “Brits Out,” “cheeky” is truly the best way to describe this film premiering in Sundance’s NEXT strand.
The gleefully irreverent feature offers an origin story for the real-life band of the title, whose members also play themselves with admirable naturalism. It’s a meet-cute success story about two working-class drug dealers — Naoise Ó Cairealláin, known onstage as Móglaí Bap, and Liam Óg Ó Hannaidh (aka Mo Chara) — who team up with a schoolteacher (JJ Ó Dochartaigh, or DJ Provaí, the one with the arse) to form a hip-hop group who rap mostly in Irish Gaelic. Writer-director Rich Peppiatt’s (doc One Rogue Reporter) exuberant sophomore feature blends truth with print-the-legend fiction. In its own sweet way, Kneecap is just like nearly every other music-focused rags-to-riches movie ever made. Think: The Jazz Singer (1927) but with a lot more ketamine; 8 Mile but set not long after an extended, bloody civil war had ended; or A Hard Day’s Night where every other word begins with the letter c.
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Understandably, much ado is being made of the fact that Irish-German star Michael Fassbender is part of the ensemble. However, his turn here, though amusing, is limited to a few key scenes related to one of Kneecap’s decidedly more fictional components. He plays Naoise’s father Arlo, a member of the Irish Republican Army who learned the Irish language in prison and insisted on teaching it to his son and his son’s best friend Liam before he faked his own death to evade arrest. While the adult Naoise in the film’s present (roughly around 2017) knows Arlo is still alive and teaching yoga on the coast under another name, their contact is limited to protect Arlo’s identity. Unfortunately, Arlo’s absence has broken the heart of Naoise’s mother Dolores (Simone Kirby), who has become agoraphobic.
Presumably, this lack of parental guidance is at least somewhat to blame for Naoise’s wayward ways, although the script isn’t interested in fashioning a sob story for either young man. We never even meet Liam’s family, but neither lad feels any self-pity except when it might be convenient. For example, while trying to get prescription drugs from doctors, the young men are happy to lay it on thick about how disadvantaged they are, victims of post-traumatic stress passed on through their genes, and so on. Somehow, this supposedly gives them a free pass even though they grew up largely after the 1990s ceasefires that ended the Troubles.
Indeed, this may be one of the first British or Irish films to turn the Troubles into something of a punchline. Early on, a grainy archive montage of exploding cars and buildings acknowledges that this is what most people think about when you mention Belfast or Northern Ireland. And, in truth, very few films or TV shows shot in the region don’t mention the Troubles, apart from maybe the recent Liam Neeson-Lesley Manville cancer-drama Ordinary Love and Game of Thrones.
But, even through the wisecracks, Kneecap shows how division is still endemic in the region between Catholics and Protestants, how paramilitary cells still operate and threaten violence, and how protest can effect change. Naming themselves after the part of the body that paramilitaries were fond of shooting to instill fear in the ranks, the band Kneecap choose to start rapping in Irish just when protests started taking place calling for official recognition of Irish as one of the region’s languages. (As a postscript helpfully explains, there are 80,000 native speakers altogether on the island, including Eire, and 6,000 in the North, but language acts in both Wales and Scotland protect the native tongue.)
It’s because of JJ Ó Dochartaigh’s facility with the language — he teaches Irish at a local high school — that he and Liam meet when the latter is arrested on nebulous charges and insists he won’t speak English with the police unless an interpreter is appointed. Enter JJ, who during the interview takes to the young man, impressed by his lyrics in a notebook that falls into his hands. It turns out that JJ has a whole home studio in a garage, and soon he’s helping Liam and Naoise arrange beats for them to perform, which evolve into the band’s first single, “C.E.A.R.T.A.” (“Cearta” is Irish for “rights.”) Footage of the trio performing in a pub goes viral in a way that only happens in smallish urban communities and movies, and the rest is history, even though at some performances the boys accidentally mix up their cocaine with their ketamine stashes.
The group’s growing fame attracts the wrath of a paramilitary group, the Radical Republicans Against Drugs — which is, in itself, a bit of an in-joke since much of the drug trade in Belfast in the old days was notoriously controlled by Republican paramilitaries who used the money to buy guns. There is a fair number of gags and wisecracks that will go over the head of many viewers not steeped in the local lore, argot and history. But the film’s infectious energy, use of in-camera effects, animation and all manner of jiggery pokery is as mesmerizing and giddy as it was when Danny Boyle used many of the same tricks for Trainspotting.
The cast is clearly having a blast, not just the leads playing themselves but the extended ensemble, from Fassbender and Kirby in the more serious roles to Jessica Reynolds, who impresses as Liam’s enthusiastic Protestant bed-buddy Georgia, to the bit players filling out the ranks as peripheral paramilitaries and Belfast housewives. All in all, it’s a film filled with the kind of warmth and black comedy that, at the risk of stereotyping, are quintessential to the region. Where else would the memory of severe generation-spanning trauma produce humor of such caliber?
At one point, JJ’s girlfriend grimaces when he cracks a joke about the Potato Famine of the 19th century. “What?” he asks. “Too soon?” In Ireland, it’s never too soon to laugh at the absurdity of history.
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