It would seem to be the season for up-from-the-neck-only performances. First Javier Bardem does a tour de force turn as a paralyzed man struggling to earn the right to die with dignity in Alexjandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside,” and now the young Scottish actor James McAvoy, who’s already impressed in other films (“Bright Young Things”), plays a victim of muscular dystrophy able to manipulate his motorized wheelchair only with the two fingers of his right hand he can still move in Damien O’Donnell’s “Rory O’Shea Was Here.” McAvoy puts across the part with considerable skill, but unfortunately the picture as a whole, though well-intentioned and likable, is also formulaic and manipulative.
The first act of the film is set in Carrigmore, self-advertised as a home for special people, presided over by a well-meaning but hidebound nurse (Brenda Fricker). The quiet, closely-regulated life there is upset by the arrival of O’Shea (McAvoy), a loud-mouthed, smart-alecky punk type who shows his contempt for the routine of the place and wants nothing more than to live on his own. Unfortunately, the government bureau from which he seeks a subsidy for a flat keeps turning him down. At the home, however, he befriends Michael (Steven Robertson), who’s wheelchair-bound as a result of cerebral palsy and speaks in a slur that only Rory can understand. Eventually the pair blackmail the wealthy father who’s abandoned Michael into helping them secure an apartment together and hire a beautiful grocery-store clerk named Siobhan (Romola Garai) as their caretaker. As the relationships grow, both men develop an interest in Siobhan, with the more obviously needy Michael falling for her big-time; and her rejection makes the continuation of the situation impossible. The last act of the picture takes a turn into full tearjerker mode, made all the more maudlin because it hasn’t been properly prepared for.
“Rory O’Shea Was Here” is a calculated piece of work that too often goes for the cute and obvious. (When a realtor shows the boys a flat, for example, we’re supposed to believe that he could actually take them to a place with a high outside staircase, unaware until the last minute that it would necessarily be unsuitable.) As a whole, it’s like a wheelchair-bound variant of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” with a take-no-prisoners pleasure-lover teaching a shy pal to chuck his inhibitions and live, live, live! Still, McAvoy’s a charismatic figure, and he makes Rory, for all the fellow’s rudeness and irksome qualities, a sympathetic sort. Robertson does a sound job with the more recessive Michael, but he can’t generate a similar electricity, and his character is more overtly a plea for audience response simply because he’s less extroverted. As the two men’s caregiver, Garai cuts a lovely figure, but Siobhan remains a murky personality, her motives and undercurrents never really clarified, and Fricker isn’t asked to do much more than register stern disapproval, which she does professionally enough. The film looks good, with spiffy cinematography (Peter J. Robertson) in attractive locations, even though scenes of rain and sun sometimes alternate rather quickly without clear transitions.
In all, for an example of this genre O’Donnell’s film isn’t as mawkish or drippy as many. But it certainly lacks the edge and punch of his earlier picture “East Is East.” For the record, “Rory O’Shea Was Here” was shown at last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival under the title “Inside I’m Dancing.” The change isn’t a significant improvement.