Gerard Barrett’s sensitive and subtle drama Glassland takes a haunting look at what happens when a child is forced to parent his parent: the pressures, the shame, the lies, the anger, and the constant stress of being responsible for someone for whom you shouldn’t be responsible. Although it’s a strong study of the effects on its characters — Jack Reynor (What Richard Did) and Toni Collette (About a Boy) give terrific performances — the plot is otherwise thin, the psychological insights somewhat lacking.
The film opens on twenty-year-old John (Jack Reynor), lying on his side in bed, turned away from the camera. It’s one of the few moments of peace he gets in the film. Before long, he’s awake, dressed, and getting ready for work, making sure to peak through the door to his mother’s room to check that she’s alright before he leaves. And he’s off in his taxi, a place that can be loud and hostile, the sounds of the road and engine blaring. It can also be quiet and tranquil, when Barrett cuts out all the sound, like when John is driving around a parking lot in circles with his younger brother, the two of them laughing and smiling. It’s a grueling job, but the ritual of picking up and dropping off passengers — often the same ones, even if he doesn’t interact with them — is a stabilizing force in his life.
Home for him is the opposite of what it should be: as soon as he gets there, he’s on his guard. He cleans up his mother’s mess. He checks on her. He wanders the hallways, the walls on either side of him always visible, as if caving in on him and haunted with painful memories. But the house feels big, too — and empty, lonely. Barrett shoots the house with a still camera, with composed frames in long takes: it’s an eerie place. Much of the film is shot formally like this, a still place where nothing is changing, nothing is improving. There are moments where Barrett goes full verité, shaking the camera with energy, but those are, more often than not, moments of panic.
The first time John gets home from work in the film, he finds his mother unconscious in her bed. He calmly carries her downstairs and lays her on the couch. He opens the back door and the car door before picking her up and carrying her into the car. He’s upset, but there’s no swearing, no hesitation, no confusion. He’s done this before.
The doctors tell him she’s drinking herself to death, and he has to stop her. He knows. And as much work as it is taking care of his mother, keeping up the façade is harder. He has trouble looking people in the eye, including her. He peers out from beneath a baseball cap, obscuring his face. Everything is about keeping himself under control: keeping the liquor out of the house, getting the work done, refraining from exploding at his mother because he knows she’s too sick to react properly, and checking off the things he needs to do to keep food on the table, to keep her going. He’s ashamed of his mother and his inability to stop her, so he crafts lies to the people he knows, withdrawing from intimacy everywhere. It all rings true, even if it doesn’t always feel as devastating as it should.
John’s escape is leaving the house, spending time with his friend Shane (Will Poulter): at the arcade, at shops, and at Shane’s home where Shane’s mother takes care of them. It’s a warm environment to be welcomed into, but even that is a reminder of what he’s lost.
He never unloads, keeping everything in. The stress comes out in physical tics: tapping his foot or shaking his leg, tapping his fingers, heavy breathing, sometimes shaking all over. The way Reynor does it though is not affected; it’s heartbreaking. You can see him holding back the tears, holding back the anger. When he does explode, it’s calculated and purposeful.
There’s one powerful scene where, in a desperate attempt to get his old, vivacious mother back, he enables her, drinks with her, and sets up the stereo to blare “Tainted Love.” The lyrics might as well be describing John’s predicament: “I give you all a boy could give you/ Take my tears and that’s not nearly all. Tainted Love.” But he gets a moment of happiness with her, and he gets her to divulge her troubles, even if she’s so self-absorbed about he has to fight to stay kind. It’s a shame that he’s too closed off and hurt to deal with this with humour — not an easy thing to do — the way the star of Please Like Me manages to manage his parents. It could give him a shot at a life of his own.
There’s so much self-sacrifice that’s meant to be noble — it’s unhealthy — and yet there’s not much going on in Glassland outside of that. We see the characters take strides, but we know no more about them by the end of the film than we did at the beginning. Nevertheless, there are so many wonderful scenes. The times when Barrett cuts all sound out, often in joyful moment shared with family, is powerful. And when John talks, really talks with his mother, it’s heartbreaking. It’s a shame it doesn’t all add up to something more.