There is something utterly liberating about an Irish comedy, from the audacious, offensive nature of films such as The Guard to the liberating openness of films such as Sing Street and Once ( or any John Carney musical film actually). Dating Amber for all its ideas about hiding yourself and the effects it has on your body and mind is just as freeing in not only its comedy but in who its characters want to be. The choices made here might be difficult and the ending might pack one hell of a punch but at its core, director David Freyne’s film is one of endless optimism amid the struggles to be something you’re not.
Set in a small town in Ireland in the 1990s, Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) is a closeted gay teenager trying to force his way into belonging in a town and place not looking to change anytime soon. At the same time, Amber (Lola Petticrew) is just trying to get through school without the other kids shaming her for being a lesbian. She doesn’t really mind that they do, she is one, she just hates that its seen as an insult to almost everyone around her. Amber smartly comes up with the idea that her and Eddie should start ‘dating’. It solves both of their problems, at least in the short-term but both of them, despite what they think makes them the same, are hugely different, something that brings them together but also puts a timer on this whole charade.
While Freyne (also serving as scriptwriter here) plays into the comedy elements of his story to ensure his ending feels unexpected, it also shies away from a bubbling backstory involving the vote over divorce, a thread that looms in the background of Eddie’s parents struggling marriage but never really grows into anything else. Despite trying to branch out into the community Eddie and Amber are either trying to escape or sink into, the script feels only skin deep when looking outside of how their parents lives affect the two of them. A poorly utilised Sharon Horgan as Eddie’s mother Hannah further emphasises this missing throughline that builds until it collapses in favour of a few, entertaining but dissapointing moments of humour.
While the film isn’t unsure of whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama, it clearly wants to tick both boxes, there are times it misses the point in search of a laugh, or hits too hard during moments of levity. O’Shea and Petticrew gamely transcend some of the plots more illogical moments and Freyne uses the Irish countryside to make the world Amber and Eddie live in feel both backwards and like home at the same time. It may not be the conventional love story, but 2020 seems to be the year of the love of a good friend (see The Half of It) and Dating Amber shines because of a well written duo of characters, that bounce off each other but also find themselves stuck in the same routines and negative cycles.
Dating Amber avoids expected moments that have since become unpleasant cliches in coming out stories in favour of keeping in line with who these characters are, Eddie a fearful kid trying to live up to the idea of who the people around him want him to be and Amber, who doesn’t want to end up unhappy and unable to tell people, this friendship is vital to the both of them but their fake relationship proves not only a crutch to both of them but the film itself as when things finally come apart Freyne’s film really comes into its own with a small but transformative ending that elevates a well-meaning comedy into something of importance. It might be too breezy at first but stick it out and this fake relationship gives way to real feelings.