Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Two movies about bereft little girls, although the similarities end there: The Quiet Girl opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown this weekend, M3gan is playing somewhere near you.
The Quiet Girl
“She says as much as she needs to say.” So speaketh the gruff farmer who, with his wife, has taken in a wee cousin for the summer: the title character, a quiet lass indeed. To be a quiet person is to crave understanding, to hope—quietly—that someone is going to get you, that people will recognize that quietness is not an affront to the rest of the world but a mode of being. For a quiet person, the words “She says as much as she needs to say,” resound like a bell of empathy. Those bells regularly go off during this heart-squeezing movie (in which the majority of the dialogue is in Irish, thus its nomination for this year’s Best International Film Oscar).
The Quiet Girl is utterly in tune with this craving to be understood, and perfectly comfortable with the reticence of Cáit (Catherine Clinch), a perpetual outsider. Lost in the disarray of her family’s overrun farm, Cáit is trundled off to another corner of Ireland, where her childless middle-aged cousins Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) and Seán (Andrew Bennett) live, their place a tidy and well-tended oasis. And yet, these folks carry their own burdens, as we discover. Perhaps writer-director Colm Bairéad, adapting a story by Claire Keegan, contrasts these two locales a little too clearly, failing to extend the film’s empathy toward the slatternly denizens of Cáit’s birth home. But then, this is a movie told from the perspective of a child—even the aspect ratio is narrow, as though framed by Cáit’s wary glance—and it’s understandable if some of the film’s characters come to life as storybook types.
There were times when I resisted the movie’s neatness in finding echoes and repetitions in Cáit’s story, yet it is full of gentle observations and a big-hearted commitment to emotional stakes. It might be the Irish setting, but some of Bairéad’s touches recollect the approach of the director who went to Ireland and made a movie called The Quiet Man, John Ford; this is a film in which looks and gestures carry enormous weight, and repeated visits to certain places build power. And in which the unspoken can be as potent as a speech—but still, it’s gratifying that someone blurted out, “She says as much as she needs to say.”
I don’t like gimmicky titles with numbers embedded in them, but I can give a pass to this one because the name of the artificial-intelligence doll is, in fact, the M3gan, pronounced Megan. It’s an acronym for Model 3 Generative Android, a life-size talking robot that, as everybody in the audience knows but nobody in the film suspects, will get just a little too smart for its own good.
Our central character, though, is Cady (Violet McGraw), a nine-year-old whose parents are killed in an opening-scene car crash. She has the mixed fortune to be adopted by her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), a Seattle tech inventor working on the M3gan program. Cady becomes the test dummy for the first M3gan model; the android bonds to Cady, and woe to any bullies who might cross our heroine’s winsome path.
If all that sounds appealing, you will spark to this movie; director Gerard Johnstone and screenwriter Akela Cooper follow a formula that is pleasing in its familiar, unsurprising lines, which are basically those of a Twilight Zone episode. I am not complaining. What makes it click is the dead-eyed subtlety of the computer-generated doll’s expressions and body language, which make M3gan somehow creepier than a live actress or actual mechanical creature—we’ve plunged deep into the uncanny valley here, and M3gan points the way toward a future that other, more serious studies of artificial intelligence haven’t grasped yet. Of course, how can we be serious about A.I. with those stories about chatbots going hilariously off-course during simple conversations? That’s how they take over—they get us chuckling, and we lower our defenses. The mien of M3gan, on the other hand, freezes the blood.
March 10, 2023
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.