Not too far into this impressive debut feature from doctor-turned-actor-turned-director Prasanna Puwanarajah, the attendees of a stand-up comedy course debate their tutor’s methodology.
“This is like SAS training now?” asks one budding comedian. “Push someone to breaking point and someone discovers they are gay or someone converts to Buddhism?”
“That’d be class, but no,” comes the tart response.
There are no Hollywood epiphanies or grand cathartic moments in this painfully honest drama written by Stacey Gregg.
Just as Gregg’s Here Before provided a splendid showcase for Andrea Riseborough to grapple with grief, Ballywalter allows Seána Kerslake to plunge into the dark night of the soul. Coming from the persuasive star of A Date for Mad Mary, The Hole in the Ground, and Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, that’s an Olympic-standard dive.
There is no easy explanation for whatever is ailing Kerslake’s Eileen. Recently returned from London to her native Belfast, college dropout Eileen angrily juggles shifts at a coffee shop and driving her ex-boyfriend’s unlicensed taxi. Rude, alcohol-dependent and completely lost, she’s a terrible housemate for her mum and pregnant sister and an unlikely chum for Shane (Patrick Kielty), a crumpled man living in a self-created exile in the coastal town of Ballywalter.
The gig-jobbing Eileen agrees to taxi Shane between the North Down village of the title and Belfast, where he is failing miserably at a community comedy course. What follows traverses the entire spectrum of depression, as her acerbic defence mechanisms are met and matched by his melancholy. She dismisses his sorrow as martyrdom; he recognises her as broken.
Shot in a muted palette by cinematographer Federico Cesca, everything about Ballywalter is commendably understated. Kielty, an accomplished comedian, firmly sits on his jazz hands and performs some of the worst stand-up routines in the history of comedy. Kerslake brings an edge and unpredictability that animates a carefully shaded story. The specifics of place have their own texture; seldom has a script encompassed such a variety of uses for the great Ulster standard: ballbag.