Producers: Rachael O’Kane and John Keville   Director: David Freyne   Screenplay: David Freyne   Cast: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Sharon Horgan, Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Evan O’Connor, Ian O’Reilly, Peter Campion, Lauryn Canny, Shaun Dunne, Emma Willis, Anastasia Blake, Adam Carolan and Arian Nik   Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Grade: B

Romantic comedies have long featured leads whose best friends are gay (whether acknowledged or not); David Freyne’s makes the lead couple gay but pretending to be straight—and romantically involved—because of social pressures.

Given that premise, it should come as no surprise that “Dating Amber” is a period piece, set in County Kildare, Ireland in 1995, just as the country is debating whether to make divorce legal.  (Same-sex sexual activity had been decriminalized in 1993, but was still frowned upon.)

The central couple is Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), seniors at a small-town high school.  They’re very different—he’s rigidly repressed and ultra clean-cut, she’s unkempt and abrasive, but both are getting harassed by their classmates for never having connected with someone of the opposite sex.  The bullies like Kev (Ian O’Reilly) are out in force, and when Eddie tries to prove them wrong by making out with buxom campus hottie Tracey (Emma Willis), it proves a disaster.

So Amber, a practical type who rents out on an hourly basis a trailer in the park her widowed mother Jill (Simone Kirby) runs to local teens (including classmates) for their trysts, suggests to Eddie that they solve their common problem by announcing that they’re an item—and proving it by becoming inseparable on campus.  He’s initially resistant, but agrees to go along, and the plan works. 

Of course complications arise as the two become friends, but with different agendas.  Amber wants to strike out by going to Dublin under various pretexts and testing the waters there, while Eddie remains determined to follow in the footsteps of his father Ian (Barry Ward) and go into the army, thinking that will turn him “normal.”  Of course, the fact that Ian and Eddie’s mother Hannah (Susan Horgan) are constantly battling gives him a foretaste of what heterosexual “normal” can mean (the imminent vote on divorce colors everything they say and do).

The trip to Dublin does happen, of course, and it opens up a real opportunity for Amber, whose meeting with Sarah (Lauryn Canny) in a gay club takes a serious turn, though she fears that Jill, still deep in grief over her husband’s suicide, will never understand.  Eddie is intoxicated by the atmosphere as well, especially by the drag queen performing onstage, but returns home no less intent on following his original life plan, even though he glimpses an alternative in a young man in his military training group who shows him a helping hand during the drills—something that brings out the worst in Eddie to prove his machismo.  Yet Eddie also misinterprets an offer of support from a sympathetic teacher with embarrassing results.

“Dating Amber” starts out in a style that is bright and rather exaggerated, like a comic strip brought to life, and that approach initially affects the performances of O’Shea and Petticrew as well as Emma Lowney’s production design, Ruairi O’Brien’s cinematography and Joe Sawyer’s editing.  And it fits with an over-the-top sex ed video shown in class, which features a quietly censorious nun using hand gestures to explain what she’s condemning. The score by Hugh Drumm and Stephen Rennicks, which incorporates a lot of period songs, is also a mite on-the-nose, as are many of the supporting turns, even by veterans like Horgan and Ward, who might have toned things down a somewhat.    

But though the penchant for going a bit broad never entirely dissipates, by the close Freyne’s move toward seriousness, which leads to a genuine crisis for Eddie, introduces a calmer, more contemplative, rueful mood, and the lead performances take on greater substance and reality.  There are also grace notes throughout that add to the mix, like the presence of Eddie’s younger brother Jack (a scene-stealing Evan O’Connor), who not only tries to bolster his older sibling whenever a tough situation arises, but endeavors to ensure that his parents stick together despite their problems—even if it comes to working against a change in the divorce law.  Jack, who longs for normalcy despite his own awkwardness, is actually one of the more touching figures in the movie.

“Dating Amber” takes some missteps along the way to a coming-of-age conclusion that’s really never in doubt, but it treats what might have seemed a crass premise with sensitivity, good humor and heart.