WHAT IS IT about foreign settings that make youthful romances work so much more effectively than they would on the home front? Obviously the settings themselves are romantic, but the real appeal lies in our predisposition towards adoring people from faraway lands--people with accents. Perhaps due to their differences, foreign characters remind us less of our own awkward youths than of idealized notions of what youth and innocence should be.
That was certainly the case with Gregory's Girl (from Scotland) and The Year My Voice Broke (from Australia), where sentiments that might otherwise sound dorky came across as endearing when expressed by British-voiced protagonists. Now it proves to be the case with Circle of Friends, a coming-of-age love story set in sunny, green Ireland. Imagine an American movie where a horny young male tries to convince his girlfriend to sleep with him by saying, "I could go to 7-11 and get some condoms." Not too appealing, right? But what if it's 1957 Dublin, and that the same male lead has a soft-toned accent in which he sweetly proposes, "I could buy fresh leathers"? Now that's romantic.
Circle of Friends makes full use of its environment and time period, and that's important since the story follows such a standard path. It's your usual girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy, and girl-wins-boy-back tale, with a few tragic complications thrown in for good measure. You can see each new development coming long before it arrives, but as directed by Pat O'Connor (who sounds a bit Irish) the film's commitment to its cause keeps the whole enterprise vibrant and new.
Benny (Minnie Driver) is the film's main character. She's a shy lass just starting her freshman year at Trinity College, along with her friends Eve (Geraldine O'Rawe) and the sultry Nan (Saffron Burrows, who appears to have stolen Stockard Channing's eyes). On the first day of school, Benny finds herself instantly attracted to the blue-eyed, golden-haired Jack (Chris O'Donnell), a rugby player and all-around popular fellow with a smile that could melt glass. And herein lies the first of the story's predicaments: Benny is large. She's not necessarily fat, but with her wide face and thick build, she's an unlikely match for the best-looking guy on campus.
What's worse, Benny's potential social life is stunted by the fact that at the end of every day she has to endure a long, lonely bus ride to the outlying village where her protective parents reside. Though loving, her mom and pop have no clue what Benny wants, and they presumptuously set her up with the weasely Sean, who has fooled Benny's father into letting him become a business partner and "one of the family." Sean will hereby be referred to as The Creepy Guy, because with his devious eyes, reptilian nostrils and slicked hair he comes across as an ungodly blend of Eddie Haskell, Pee Wee Herman and Dracula. Though The Creepy Guy is the most unrealistic presence in Circle of Friends, he's also the most memorable, and don't be surprised if you hear "Sssss" sounds in the theater whenever he comes around. Benny is rightfully disgusted by his advances, one of which involves groping her breast in a movie theater and then pretending nothing happened.
Once Circle of Friends establishes this cruel environment for its heroine, the movie sets about the task of bringing her together with Jack, who turns out to be a true prize: a boyfriend who has no trouble seeing beyond Benny's physical imperfection to the beauty inside. Their courtship runs from cute to comic, starting with knowing glances in a classroom and culminating with a makeout session in which the two actors shout "Jack!", "Benny!", "Jack!", "Benny!" (a joke that seemed to be lost on much of the audience).
This is by all means a female fantasy movie, but it's a fantasy you can believe in thanks to Minnie Driver's consistently winning performance. Through the simplest of expressions Driver shows us a strong, spirited person who is undeniably worthy of love. O'Donnell's performance is a bit weaker--he's not a polished actor, and he can't quite get that Irish accent down--but there's no denying his effectiveness. And I couldn't help admiring what a smart career move O'Donnell has made by appearing in this small picture, offsetting his larger, dumber roles such as the bland lead in The Three Musketeers or Robin in this summer's Batman flick.
There isn't much to be said about Circle of Friends' second half, which includes misunderstandings, errors of judgment, tragedy and the continued scheming of The Creepy Guy. What is more important to note is what a nice message Circle of Friends sends out to its female audience. Here's a heroine who succeeds by virtue of simply sticking to her convictions. She doesn't make a fool out of herself, and she doesn't play into lies, manipulations or the pressure to have sex (she waits until she's damn sure it's what she wants). Contrast that with Muriel's Wedding, which has almost the opposite storyline: an overweight heroine who lies to herself and accepts compromising positions throughout the entire picture. These two films are practically bookends, with Muriel's Wedding on the gaudy, purposely obnoxious Australian side and Circle of Friends on the charming, sturdy-willed Irish side. As coming-of-age stories go, you can't get a more globally diverse--and appealing--selection than that.
Circle of Friends is playing at El Dorado cinemas (7456241).
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