The plot of Colm Bairéad’s 2022 film “The Quiet Girl" is minimal: A young Irish girl leaves home to stay with distant relatives for the summer. But the relationships that develop in the movie’s relatable plot are deep and rich. Simple gestures become monumental: the peeling of potatoes, the feeding of a baby calf and the brushing of hair are all acts through which the story unfolds and relationships are built.
“The Quiet Girl” is both a masterful exploration of a child’s perspective and a stunning meditation on the importance of care.
Adapted from Claire Keegan’s short story “Foster,” the film follows Cáit, a 9-year old-girl from rural Ireland. An observant and — as the title implies — quiet girl, Cáit comes from a dysfunctional family that struggles to make ends meet. Her pregnant mother is burdened by anxieties and her father is an alcoholic.
As the family’s farm gradually falls into disrepair, Cáit feels increasingly forgotten at home — paid little attention and shown even less care. She endures her difficult home life by purposefully fading into the background, expressing a penchant for running off and hiding in plain sight from the earliest moments of the film.
The film’s opening shot displays a wind-swept landscape covered in tall grasses. The shot has no focal point until the camera pans downward. Cáit comes into view, her body carefully nestled into the tall grass. A scene that comes moments later shows Cáit in a similar position, this time hiding under a bed to avoid her mother’s call.
Cáit’s reality begins to change when she is dropped off at a house belonging to Eibhlín, her mother’s older cousin, and her husband Seán. Despite the evident distance between the two families, Eibhlín and Seán take Cáit in and care for her as if she were their own.
Eibhlín becomes a maternal figure for Cáit and engages her in frequent conversation, helping her to develop a stronger sense of confidence. Despite being distant at first, Seán also eventually develops a strong bond with the young girl. In a heartwarming moment, Seán leaves a cookie on the kitchen table for Cáit after having been cold to her. The wordless exchange emphasizes the sincerity of Seán’s gesture.
To an extent, Cáit fills an absence left by the unexpected death of Eibhlín and Seán’s young son, which is hinted at in the film’s first act but not immediately revealed. Cáit is dressed in boy's clothing upon her arrival, her bedroom is plastered with train-printed wallpaper and Eibhlín tenderly cares for her in a way that only a mother would. This careful attention to detail, accompanied by poetic silence, is one of the film’s hallmarks. Often, observation takes precedence over dialogue.
The film’s cinematography, the work of Kate McCullough, features soaring landscapes that center the work in its geographical context. Many of the film’s shots are placed in Cáit’s perspective and oriented upward: toward the sky, the trees and the adults that tower over her. McCullough establishes the camera’s upward orientation as a stylistic motif in the film.
“The Quiet Girl” focuses on mundane objects of daily life, which subsequently assume increased importance over the course of Cáit’s summer. For example, lengthy shots focus on a metal bucket used to draw water from a well. This stylistic choice effectively immerses the audience in Cáit’s surroundings and encourages viewers to see things as she does — evoking life in rural Ireland and making a meaningful cultural statement.
The film’s focus on Irish culture is emphasized by perhaps its most distinguished attribute: The use of the Irish national language, Gaelic. “The Quiet Girl” was developed and produced as part of the Cine4 Irish-language feature film scheme, an effort to revitalize the country’s national language through film. The film’s dialogue is almost exclusively in Gaelic, with few English words interspersed between sentences. To date, “The Quiet Girl” is the only Gaelic-language nomination for the category of Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards.
Only Cáit’s emotionally abusive father speaks exclusively in English throughout the film. In establishing this association, English is conflated with negativity and belittlement. Gaelic is closely tied to the Irish national identity, which at various moments in history has been put into jeopardy by British occupation. The film quietly makes an association that equates English with the tongue of an unloving father, delivering an impactful political statement that calls for the revitalization of the Irish language and culture.
“The Quiet Girl” is both subtle and deeply expressive. A significant achievement in Irish cinema, the film’s emphasis on care and observation gives rise to an emotional intensity that lasts long beyond its credits.