“It would be alright if you killed yourself,” jokes 13-year-old Amy in Frank Berry’s I Used to Live Here, a film about life and death, and their fascination for adolescents.
“I’m only messin’,” Amy smiles after her shocking statement, but, as viewers learn, she mightn’t be telling the truth.
I Used to Live Here highlights the issue of so-called “cluster suicides”.
This is a phenomenon whereby the suicide death of one teenager can become the focus of obsession for others. The movie opens by announcing that it was inspired by an article named 'Breaking the Ripple Effects of Suicide', by psychologist Tony Bates.
The movie closes with a youth worker declaring that “one suicide can lead to more among young people”. In between those two points, the movie fastens your eyes to the screen with riveting concern.
The action occurs over the course of seven days, set in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght. Amy (Jordanne Jones) is coming to terms with her mother’s death, when she hears news a friend has jumped from a bridge onto a motorway.
Another of Amy friends, a lad named Dylan (Dafhyd Flynn), is also in trouble. Skipping school and stealing money to pay to local bullies, Dylan is becoming increasingly isolated.
Meanwhile, Amy’s father Raymond (James Kelly) meets with ex-girlfriend Dina (Alicja Ayres), who informs him that he’s the father of her baby son. In Amy’s world it’s a busy week.
Though the dramatic strands crossover and intertwine, the narrative never appears convoluted. It’s to Berry’s credit that the complexity isn’t over complicated. In fact there’s a deceptive simplicity and an unfussy sense of naturalism on show.
Berry films entirely on location around Tallaght, using either amateur actors or mostly unfamiliar faces.
No doubt some choices were forced by budget restrictions but the result is a kind of cinema verite that recalls classics like Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966) or Kes (1971). Berry’s tight camera frame implies confinement, the only stylisation being a blurred periphery that symbolises the characters’ claustrophobia.
There’s also an unrushed and improvisational style to the action that’s similar to Larry Clark’s controversial teen drama Kids (1995). Clark’s film discomforted audiences by depicting the troubled transitional period between childhood and adulthood.
Similarly, Berry’s characters have one foot in both worlds. One minute we see Amy falling deeper into depression and buying marijuana from a local dealer; later we see her merrily scoffing sweeties like any other kid. The agonies of adolescence swirl up in a vortex of pleasure and pain.
Last year I Used to Live Here won Berry the Best First Feature Award at Galway.
But he has a proven knack for finding unconventional stories. His 2011 documentary Ballymun Lullaby was nominated for an IFTA award, having observed the unlikely collaboration between the youngsters of Dublin’s notorious sink estate and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
Berry’s film revealed the work of local music teacher Ron Cooney, whose seemingly inexhaustible optimism helped the Ballymun youth choir produce music both soothing and rousing. The eccentric enterprise was an improbable success.
It won the IFTA for Best Original Score for composer Daragh O’Toole, who provides the soundtrack again on I Used to Live Here. It’s a sparse, haunting church-organ sound that gradually creeps in on the characters like a piercing shroud.
Berry’s movie has no easy answers to the problems it exposes. What it gives is a sharp illustration of the everyday troubles of urban teenagers, with some spellbinding acting performances.
I Used to Live Here is released in Britain and Ireland from Friday, April 3