Coming of age stories come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re joyous, ridiculous tales like Weird Science (1985), dramatic like Baby, Don’t Cry (2021), or explorations of addiction and trauma like Trainspotting (1996). The story within writer/director Eoin Macken’s (Leopard) adaptation of Rob Doyle’s 2014 novel Here Are the Young Men fits in the latter category as a trio of friends at a time in their lives when they should be free of all cares find themselves spiraling after witnessing a tragedy. With a stacked cast including Dean-Charles Chapman (1917), Ferdia Walsh-Peelo (Sing Street), Finn Cole (F9), Anya Taylor-Joy (Split), Travis Fimmel (Vikings), Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones), Ralph Ineson (The Green Knight), and Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Macken’s Here Are the Young Men should be an automatic “must-see” event. Unfortunately for us all, outside of some interesting visual flourishes, there’s very little that rings true about this grim morality play. Even worse, what should be received as a dour, failure of an ending will likely be internalized by immature audiences as a triumph, ushering in a new crop of wrong idea’d romantics.
June 2003 in Dublin and Matthew Connolly (Chapman) is finally graduated from school. He sees this as being released from the tyranny of his school’s overseer, Mr. Landerton (Ineson), as do his similarly free friends Rez (Walsh-Peelo) and Kearney (Cole). The trio celebrate their shared emancipation with drinking, drugs, and vandalism. Their joy, however, is cut short when the three witness the tragic accidental death of a young girl, sending each one spiraling in vastly different ways. For Rez, it’s an existential crisis; for Matthew, it’s feeling stranded despite surrounded by support; and, for Kearney, it gives permission to take the nihilistic feelings he’s buried and bring them straight to the surface. This should’ve been the best summer of their lives, but it would instead be a test paving the way for their future.
Moving forward, this review will not speak to the adaptation of the novel as I am not familiar with it beyond the research completed to prepare this exploration. One thing that can be stated with certainty is that the film version excises the character of Cocker, a fourth member of this group of friends. No idea how this impacts the film, but I can’t help but wonder if that’s why it felt like something was missing while watching the film, as though there was some less trite character storyline that would’ve served as connective tissue for this group or aided in coloring the world presented (ex. bolstering Kearney’s budding sociopathy or offering a support system for the reluctant Matthew).
What I can speak on is that viewers familiar with Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream (2000) will feel like they are watching a less-effective version of the combined two. At a quick 97 minute runtime, the film barely introduces the trio before the tragedy occurs, which means the audience isn’t given any time to know the characters pre-narrative catalyst before things are heightened. This reduces the overall sense of misfortune that precedes over the film and reduces the audience to little more than unaffected spectators rather than connected cohorts. And we should feel something, anything, about this cast beyond “Wow, these actors are great! Why don’t I care?.” Instead, all we know is that they are disaffected youth who fit into one of three stereotypical categories: the unsure (Matthew), the emotional (Rez), or the hedonistic self-centered malcontent (Kearney). And we’re expected to believe that this is all we need. This hollowness doesn’t endear the characters in any way, no matter what the audience thinks of the actors portraying them. Even the interesting visual flourishes Macken adds, implying a breach of reality in Kearney’s perspective only goes so far in its engagement. As an aside, I can’t tell if the use of Kearney’s fixation on America via a fictional American television program is meant to be commentary or is used just to highlight Kearney’s justification-seeking behaviors. If it’s meant as commentary, it’s too loose to be clear. If it’s meant as the latter, then why does Matthew get pulled into it as well?
Where the film made me pay attention is in the use of Taylor-Joy’s Jen. It’s not just because the actor shines in just about any material she engages with, but the way she infuses Jen with a no-bullshit, self-aware attitude. That the character demands to be treated as a person, that the script clearly supports this as well, is absolutely refreshing; especially as the story gets darker and Jen becomes the one character who makes plain that so much of the trauma the three are suffering from could be better handled via actual communication versus the bullshit machismo belief that “a man should be able to handle his business alone.” It’s also a shame that her character becomes the defacto “stable one,” which is fairly consistent with a large number of coming-of-age films centered on boys. Luckily, whether by script or by performance, Jen is less the mother hen of the group than one might expect. That said, here is a trigger warning for attempted sexual assault. This sequence is by far the only one which made me react in any visceral way toward the characters in the film (kudos to the Macken and the cast) and the fallout is handled in a mixture of maturity and absolute idiocy. If you haven’t seen the film, based on this paragraph alone, you can tell from which side the maturity falls and which the idiocy. And it’s this idiocy which I find the most troubling.
So here’s your heads up that what I’m about to discuss will absolutely spoil the film (SPOILER WARNING), but I need to be clear in expressing my disdain for a specific aspect.
Here we go …
I love the fact that, when Matthew confronts Jen about having sex with Kearney, she not only corrects him about what didn’t happen, but that she takes Matthew to task for not doing anything. And when Matthew reacts to this with a threat of violence on Kearney, she tells him that his reaction is more about himself than her. She is her own person and, as she says, capable of fighting her own battles. The film makes this abundantly clear in multiple ways so the statement is evidentiary fact supported from the text. So when the conclusion comes between Matthew and Kearney, it’s an entirely selfish act. There is no justice here. It’s self-serving and will ultimately lead to Matthew’s own personal hell. My issue here is that the film doesn’t seem to present this clearly. Matthew is our surrogate and his journey the central one, so what does it say when the film ends without a consequence or the implication of one? The takeaway seems so murky amid an otherwise poppy-seeming style and feeling, that one might confuse things if they’re not considered beyond the surface.
There are some films which are absolutely worth seeing once. Films like Requiem, Mother! (2017), and Uncut Gems (2019) immediately come to mind due to their incredible casts and undeniably imaginative yet disturbing narratives. Here Are the Young Men is a film which includes an incredible cast doing solid work, does not possess that other factor which makes it either compelling or resonant. This may be due to the removal of material from the source or just that some stories don’t translate well from the source material, an aspect which is often overlooked when developing a project. What can be said without hesitation is that Here Are the Young Men should work, should resonate, should bring to mind the hardship of the shift into adulthood. Unfortunately, the total project lacks that *thing* which would assist in transcending away from mediocrity and into the halls of great coming-of-age tales.
Here Are the Young Men Special Features
- Well Go USA Previews
Available on digital April 27th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD June 29th, 2021.
For more information, head to Well Go USA’s Here Are the Young Men website.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.