Movies: Snap ****


Paul Whitington

By some distance the best of a surprisingly decent crop of Irish films thus far in 2011, Carmel Winters' Snap is based on her own one-woman play. You don't go to see Irish films to get cheered up: they tend to mine thoroughly miserable territories, and Snap is certainly no exception.

But if Snap's theme (child abuse, in various forms) is depressingly familiar, there's absolutely nothing tired or predictable about the way Winters examines it. She teases out a brutally simple story with considerable skill, and coaxes a typically commanding and powerful performance from Aisling O'Sullivan.

She is Sharon, a bitter and clearly unstable woman who seems to be recovering from some sort of family trauma. As an amateur documentary crew follow her around her pokey apartment, she fields vitriolic phonecalls from strangers and opens hate mail that arrives daily. Three years before, her teenage son Stephen (Stephen Moran) abducted a two-year-old boy and took him to Sharon's father's house.

With his grandfather in hospital, Stephen conceals the boy and begins to act out a parent-child relationship. At times he's sweet with the child, at others he neglects and shouts at it. It's clear he's replaying patterns from his own childhood, and as Snap develops we realise why he's so messed up and why his relationship with his brittle mother is so strained.

Snap is not easy to watch, and in fact it'll be a couple of months before I attempt a second viewing. But the way Winters edges us towards the hearts of her principal characters is hugely impressive, and at times the film reaches heights of almost unwatchable rawness. Viewed at first through the prism of a shaky video camera, O'Sullivan's Sharon is so resentful and vitriolic that she's impossible to like: she lashes out at everyone around her, and her only confidante is a supposed AA sponsor (Eileen Walsh) with a secret agenda of her own.

The ominous interaction between Stephen and the toddler is hard to bear, but even more unsettling is the scene where Sharon picks up an old drunk (the late Mick Lally, in a last performance bereft of vanity) outside a chipper and takes him home. While he endeavours to have sex with her, Sharon smokes and sneers and laughs at him, seemingly settling some ancient grudge with men.

Snap takes no shortcuts with any of its troubling concerns, and comes to no glib conclusions either. All you're left with is the mess that ripples outwards endlessly from the original sin of sexual abuse.