Michael Inside features many kinds of petty criminals. From his despondent father to his drug-dealing friends, the eponymous Michael McCrea (Dafhyd Flynn) is surrounded by loss and violence, despite his own reluctance to become involved with the darker side of Dublin life. A haunting take on the responsibility of choice, Frank Berry’s second feature explores what happens when an average young man becomes a cog in a dangerous system – and the damning repercussions of coerced toxic masculinity.
The film begins by introducing its teenage protagonist as an everyday 18-year-old boy with everyday concerns; within the washed out grey-blue hues of Berry’s working-class Ireland, Michael plays football, attends college, and spends time with his girlfriend. His past may be spotted with mistakes and ill luck, but the film quickly establishes that Michael is not innately violent nor ill-meaning. When Michael is caught hiding drugs for a mate’s brother, however, he is sentenced to three months in prison, to the despair of his beloved grandfather, Francis (Lalor Roddy). What follows is a harsh and intimate look at the eradication of Michael’s teenage innocence, as prison life pushes him further and further towards a violence he had always sworn against.
Such a plot may seem set up for melodrama, but Michael Inside deftly avoids such traps, choosing a realist, almost documentary-like approach rather than over-the-top histrionics. Long speeches and staged ethical points are nowhere to be found, replaced instead with short, honest conversations between loved ones. Audience empathy is entirely natural and never exploited as we accompany Michael on his spiralling descent, observing his every mistake so closely it feels as though the error could have been made by anyone watching if they had been put in the same situation. The emotional scenes, when they come, have a shedload of impact due to their considerable rarity. One such scene is that of Michael’s sentencing. As he admits his guilt and promises to do better in the future, tears threaten to give away his vulnerability, though they do not quite fall. When the judge ignores his plea, Francis cries openly. In another scene, Michael hovers at the door of his grandfather’s bedroom, informing his former guardian that he feels sick, much as a child does when they are ill in the night. Francis does not go to him, but instead gently informs him that he will need to toughen up. In a film otherwise peppered with violence and hate, such an honest display of familial need strikes hard.
This emotive success is grounded within the performance of relative newcomer Dafhyd Flynn. Quiet and brooding, the subtleties of Michael’s transformation from irresponsible teenager into hardened criminal are conveyed effortlessly through the tensing of his jaw or the furrowing of his brow, progressively indented with the stress of an impossible situation. In his hands, Michael’s character remains sympathetic and even relatable; though his innocence may be a cause for debate, it is impossible not to feel sorry for the teenager as he faces choices that nobody should ever have to make.
Of course, there must always be a downside to every bravely-shot film. While the striking realism of the piece provides maximum insight into our protagonist’s experience, the procedural nature of this style may well make this a difficult watch for mainstream audiences. The pacing of the film elicits quiet thought rather than dramatic thrills, and the necessity of explaining every single part of Michael’s journey means that little time is given to the establishment of his character before he is arrested – barely seven minutes into the film. This plodding continuation means that some areas are skipped over all too quickly, while other segments of his prison experience are lingered upon too much, and certain narrative choices appear completely out of the blue in order to move along the plot.
Nonetheless, the provocation of quiet thought is a commendable achievement for any film. Berry, in the neutrality of his camera, ensures that audiences are left to consider Michael’s decisions and the impact the cruel system has had on his life. Blame is never directly assigned here, but instead woven into the situations surrounding an individual, creating a piece that successfully questions whether or not we can be blamed for succumbing to the pressures of an unfair society.
‘Michael Inside’ is now on general release in UK cinemas. For our London readers, the Prince Charles Cinema is running a director Q&A on Sunday 16th September – get your tickets here!