In one of several lovely grace notes in Glassland, a domestic drama from Irish writer-director Gerard Barrett, a handsome young man hands his pretty mother a glass of white wine. They clink, they chug, he watches fondly as she dances alone, they slow-dance together. The sequence is touching rather than erotic, and it repeats later in the film with another kind of poignancy. But we already know that John, played by the seraphic-looking Jack Reynor (late of Transformers: Age of Extinction), spends a lot more time cleaning up his mother's vomit than he does twirling her around their barely furnished Dublin flat. Jean (Toni Collette) is a late-stage drunk whose liver is all but pickled, and for all practical purposes she doesn't much care.
On the cusp of adult life, John is spinning his wheels as the family fixer. When not rescuing his mother from yet another bender, he keeps house, sort of, and shows up, armed with a card he says Jean wrote, for the birthday party of his institutionalized younger brother, Kit (Harry Nagle), who has Down syndrome. When he's not putting in long hours as a cabbie to keep the family afloat, John hangs out with his combustible friend Shane (a very good Will Poulter), who's a bit of a waster but has enough maternal support to help him strike out for pastures new. John, for his part, is stuck fast in a state of perpetual emergency, and things seem to get worse when, in order to get his mother the extra time in the extended rehab she needs, he takes on a gig that threatens to make him an accessory to human trafficking.
Jean may or may not be a hopeless case, and if you're clinically inclined, you might call John a grade-A enabler. For that matter, you might brand Glassland as yet another indie wallow in the miserabilist cinema that's a specialty of the British Isles and other Northern European lands with difficult weather. The ingredients are present and correct: bleak lives eked out in dead-end jobs or worse in a bleak housing project, with only video games for fun. But the film is an intensely descriptive, head-to-the-ground mood piece, and when it's not talking too much, Glassland is the satisfyingly tangled love story of a boy and his mama. It's all in the details, and the poetic camerawork, and some great acting all round.
Reynor is wonderfully variable as a man barely out of boyhood yet compelled to play father to his own mother. He was born kind and sensitive, or so his mother says, perhaps to excuse her dependence on him, but with enough pride in himself to throw a frustrated hissy fit when his mother lets him down for the umpteenth time. And Collette never squeamish and always flexible, cannily plays Jean not only at the extremes of despair and infantile hysteria, but also in between as the fun-loving woman she might still be, had life not crushed her spirit. Barrett doesn't let Jean off the hook, and Collette is so good that there's no need for the long, expository speech in which Jean lays bare her troubled life, still less for "Tainted Love" on the soundtrack when mother and son step out together.
The best scenes in Glassland are wordless and speak eloquently for themselves. Jack and Shane, hammering away at a video game; a long shot of Jean, fresh out of the hospital and already dead drunk, seen through the glass of her front door with John, his shoulders slumped in defeat. The camera rests on a wall or a vacated hallway, on a misted-up windshield, on the frightened face of a horribly young Asian prostitute shrinking into the back corner of John's cab. He's a knight of sorts, but confused as to who is worth rescuing. Is a fleeting image of domestic harmony and reconciliation real, or an unattainable fantasy in John's head? Stuff happens, but it's the indeterminacy that gives John his open destiny, and that makes this quietly observant drama into the best of kitchen-sink cinema — the kind that opens a window into its protagonists' dreary world, without making the experience of watching them dreary.