Wren Boys (Sundance)

By Harry Lighton | Drama
A Catholic priest drives his nephew to prison on the day after Christmas.

On the day after Christmas, a Catholic priest is driving his nephew to prison. They intend to visit an inmate in the remote, dour location. The visit, however, is not as it seems, with the priest performing an important ceremony — one that will have unpredictable consequences later on.

Released in honor of Pride Month, this compelling, gritty short drama — directed by Harry Lighton from a script co-written with John Fitzpatrick — is both an exploration of changing traditions in contemporary Ireland and a character study of a man wrestling with personal loyalties and morality.

The film opens with the priest preaching in front of his congregation, recalling his memories of wren hunting — a holiday tradition in Ireland where boys are sent out the day after Christmas to hunt down and kill a wren, symbolizing the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

Those ideas — of the intertwining of brutality, folk tradition and symbolism — imbue the rest of the story, which unfolds with evocative economy. Its naturalistic, thoughtful visuals also capture a sense of place and time, full of texture, history and the desolate nature of the Irish countryside. The storytelling slowly builds up tension and intrigue but undercuts it in unpredictable ways that don’t feel cheap. Instead, this skewing of expectations explores viewers’ sense of social norms and traditions, particularly around masculinity and violence.

The uniformly excellent performances of the cast anchor the story in the everyday, relatable emotions of love, loyalty and faithfulness. Actor Lalor Roddy as the priest in particular evokes both the toughness of an older man growing up under the fierce conservatism of Ireland and stoic compassion for his nephew’s situation. Through his weathered demeanor, Conor is both a remnant of a more stringently religious past and an almost bemused, somewhat apprehensive appraisal of the future — a tension that ultimately unfolds in unpredictable actions that have equally volatile consequences.

Nominated for a prestigious BAFTA award and a selection at Sundance, the climax of “Wren Boys” ultimately plays with expectations both narrative and social, building towards what seems like a horrific ending in its intensity and violence. Shot with an eye and ear for suspense, it has an almost agonizing build-up. But the film plays with this, patterning a unique and unexpected rhythm of tension and release. Underneath each shift, however, lurks the undercurrent of violence, a thread unifying all the ideas, traditions and rituals explored in “Wren Boys” — and one that will not so easily be transmuted in the end.

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