Colm Bairéad’s delicate coming-of-age drama “The Quiet Girl” takes place in the rural Irish countryside during the early 80s where our title character, 9-year-old Cáit (newcomer Catherine Clinch in a breakout role), is sent away by her parents to spend the summer with distant relatives, an older couple with no kids. What seems like punishment to our frail protagonist unexpectedly becomes a blessing in disguise as she’s shown love and kindness, possibly for the very first time. The heartfelt film is based on the novella “Foster” by Claire Keegan and was nominated for Best International Feature at this year’s Academy Awards.

The story begins with Cáit hiding in an overgrown field while her three older sisters call out for her. It’s the only place she finds solace from a cruel world that begins at home. When she’s not in trouble for occasionally wetting the bed, clearly triggered by emotional stress, she’s being scolded for falling behind at school, which she sometimes flees after being made fun of by the other students.

Cáit is a good kid, not a troublemaker, she’s just devoid of emotional nourishment and guidance. Without unconditional love, the effects on a child can be devastating. Being the youngest and most bashful member of the family, Cáit is nearly invisible to her clan. Her Mam (Catherine Clinch) is having a hard time dealing with four girls while pregnant, and her Da (Michael Patric) is an alcoholic who gambles away the family’s money which explains the decrepit state of their farmhouse and the lack of food; the girls are forced to pack sliced bread as a school lunch.

One night, Cáit overhears her parents discussing sending her away for the summer. “How long should they keep her?” Mam asks. Her husband responds, “Can’t they keep her as long as they like?” They decide to send their daughter away to live with distant relatives, cousin Eibhlín (Carrie Crawley) and her husband Seán (Andrew Bennett), an older and financially secure couple with no children who run a small dairy farm.

On the three-hour journey to her new summer home, Cáit takes in the beautiful Irish countryside. Kate McCullough’s subdued cinematography gives the film a warm glow, ideal for the story’s nurturing tone and fragile protagonist.

Eibhlín is warm and welcoming to her new houseguest whose father was so anxious to get rid of her that he left with Cáit’s suitcase. Not a problem assures Eibhlín as she gives Cáit a much-needed bath. Although it’s boys clothing, it suits Cáit who begins helping Seán around the dairy farm. He wasn’t as warm as his wife when Cáit arrived, later in the film we understand his reservation. In one scene he scolds the young girl after she disappears from his sight, “You can’t go wandering off like that” he says, and then yells “Do you hear me?!” Cáit runs away in fear but Eibhlín assures her she has nothing to be afraid of, Seán is understandably protective.

The next day Seán places a small cookie next to Cáit as she helps in the kitchen. It’s his way of apologizing. No words are spoken in the heartfelt scene. It’s just a small gesture of love that leaves a big impact on Cáit, and one of the film’s many cherished moments.

A strong bond develops between Cáit and her temporary foster family. For the first time in her life, she feels loved, respected, and valued. Her days are spent with Eibhlín gathering water at the local well or helping with meals in the kitchen and with Seán who teaches her how to feed a calf. Cáit resembles a 9-year-old version of Tom Cruise’s superspy Ethan Hunt as she runs down the long driveway daily to check the mail for Seán. Her “Mission Impossible,” to be loved, has been completed. Three months pass quickly and then a letter arrives from Cáit’s parents indicating they will be arriving soon to pick up their daughter before school starts.

It’s been a while since I have been touched by such a beautiful coming-of-age film. Stephen Rennick’s dreamy score with lush melodies provides an ethereal atmosphere that heightens Colm Bairéad’s gentle film. You’ll fall in love with Catherine Clinch whose tender performance is unforgettable. “The Quiet Girl” is a must-see film that leaves you deeply moved.

(4 stars)

Now showing at the Angelika Film Center & Café (Dallas), Angelika Film Center & Café (Plano), and AMC NorthPark 15

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.