With a cinematic nod to The Wizard of Oz (from black and white to color), Irish director Lance Daly's pre-teenage romance is gritty and heartfelt but never sentimental, a kind of low-rent, real-life version of Slumdog Millionaire ... without the epic sweep, melodrama or Bollywood sense of triumph.
When his dad punches his mom in a fit of anger, young Dylan (Shane Curry) fights back, only to unleash the full force of his father's brutal fury. With the help of the girl next door, Kylie (Kelly O'Neill), he flees, and the two hitch a ride with a friendly barge-driver. This sends them on a runaway odyssey into Dublin, where they search for Dylan's older brother, encounter a busker and sympathetic young woman, go on an illicit shopping spree (who says money can't buy happiness?) and, possibly, run into Bob Dylan. But as night settles in, the kids discover that for every good-natured person who's willing to help them, the streets are filled with those who would do them harm.
Simultaneously sweet and tough, Kisses is like Before Sunrise as imagined by Roddy Doyle, an incisively written drama with strangely magical moments and memorably offbeat characters that's never afraid to cross into unsettling instances of danger. Dylan and Kylie's developing relationship is both authentic and moving, a tribute to extraordinary resilience and open-heartedness of kids, and their inevitable naïveté. It's also the glue that holds Daly's film together, as he spices their foul-mouthed dialogue with sparks of humor and humanity.
His script pulls no punches in its depiction of life among the forgotten poor. The kids' time is marked in featureless public housing under the care of neglectful or abusive parents, a domestic nightmare of cramped living, casual violence and economic despair. Anger is both a form of communication and the only reliable expression of emotion. From its black-and-white-shot beginning, you can read the grim worry and wisdom on Dylan's face. He's an 11-year-old who's been forced to grow up far too fast. O'Neill's Kylie is his shelter from the storm, a cleverly sarcastic and relentlessly positive force that teaches him to embrace his youth and regain his sense of fun. Most kids dream of running away at some point in their lives, and Kisses depicts Dylan and Kylie's full-color adventures in Dublin as both playful and fear-filled. Daly also arranges such inventive contrivances as wheelie-sneakers and a guest cameo by Stephen Rea that pay off wonderful narrative dividends.
Still, as good as Kisses is, you can't help but feel like it could have said what it needed in half the running time. Already short (75 minutes), it seems a bit padded with montages and a few meaningless early detours.
In the end, it's the kids (both non-actors) who force you to overlook the slightness of Daly's story, delivering sincere, vulnerable and utterly convincing performances that center the movie and hold your attention. You not only care about Dylan and Kylie, you learn to love them. And though Kisses' ending feels glumly anti-climactic — it wants to make it clear that there is no easy escape for these kids — you want to believe that they will help each other rise above the grim realities of their existence. Though it might have compromised his indie cred, Daly wouldn't have betrayed this point if he gave us a hint that, ultimately, the kids will be alright.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237) at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 17-18 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 19.
Jeff Meyers is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.