The Bright Side review: Emotional tale of cancer sisterhood packs a punch

Gemma-Leah Devereux in 'The Bright Side'

Hilary White

The Bright Side Cert 16, in cinemas 4 stars

Kate (Gemma-Leah Devereux) is having an existential crisis and is coming around to the decision that she will give up on life altogether.

Her career as a stand-up comedian is going nowhere fast, casting directors aren’t returning her calls, and she can’t hold down a relationship. Meanwhile, her only loving family member, brother James (Kevin McGahern), is losing patience with her rackety ways.

After bumping a couple of ribs in a trampoline accident, Kate goes into hospital to have the injury looked at. There, something is spotted that rings alarm bells. By the time she comes out, she is carrying new weight — a breast cancer diagnosis. With her faith in life having evaporated, she greets the news as something that might even offer a handy escape route.

She won’t be allowed to go quietly, however. Urged on by James and heartened by his young daughter, Kate enters into chemotherapy, albeit with much eye-rolling and cynicism. But what she finds in treatment has an effect on her that goes far beyond fighting off the cancer.

She meets a group of fellow patients who begin to challenge her assumptions and get in under her skin. Gradually, she finds herself with a new family to lean on and share with.

These four women, ranging in age and background, represent the indiscriminate nature of the terrible disease, from tally-ho Dublin suburbanite Fiona (Karen Egan) to Roísín (Barbara Brennan) who is firmly in her dotage. Tracy (Siobhán Cullen) is the bolshy one, while Helen (Derbhle Crotty) is there to transmit a salutary lesson about not waiting your whole life to be yourself.

When the group embarks on a therapeutic fly-fishing weekend, there turns out to be more on the table than just the opportunity of some sisterly bonding. Leading the trip is Kate’s kindly pharmacist Andy (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), whose life has also been touched by cancer.

But cancer treatment is no picnic, and before there can be any talk of a fresh start in life, Kate has to overcome the illness.

A year after the death of her sister from breast cancer, filmmaker Ruth Meehan decided that she needed some time out to recharge her batteries. Waiting to board a flight to India, she noticed a memoir on sale in the airport bookshop written by her fellow DCU alumnus, Anne Gildea (of The Nualas fame). Gildea’s bestseller, I’ve Got Cancer, What’s Your Excuse? detailed the comedian’s battle with and recovery from the diesease.

Meehan and co-writer Jean Pasley were on the hunt for a new project at the time, and while the idea of returning to the subject of cancer following her loss was not an obvious choice, in Gildea’s memoir Meehan saw the foundations for an inspiring, uplifting, and important story.

A capable and very pleasing Irish ensemble cast has been put together for the task. Devereux’s front-and-centre turn needs to range from slapstick to soul-searching to standing on the precipice, and that she pulls it off marks a real change up in gear for her evolution as a leading lady.

Cullen is a particular stand-out in her role as a lost tomboy who has been cruelly stricken down at a young age in her life. For Vaughan-Lawlor, it is a slightly lower wattage than we’re perhaps used to but his performance is somehow all the more noteworthy because of that.

So often, movies such as The Bright Side, ones that are built around a specific real-life issue, can have a functional and flat timbre to them, as if you are sitting through a piece of public service broadcasting.

Although it breaks apart the experience of having a disease that affects one in nine women at some stage during their lifetime, Meehan’s film smuggles the message in under the cover of themes such as redemption, friendship and love.

Admittedly, the plot follows a well-trodden path, one with little in the way of surprises. It doesn’t shy away from any hard truths, however, and has nudity, bad language and more than a few barbs to hit you with just in case you think things are at risk of getting too cuddly.

Only those with hearts of stone will be able to resist getting pulled along by The Bright Side’s current. Characters make us laugh and cry, they break apart and come together, and constantly there is the sense of a protagonist getting one step closer to a breakthrough. Exactly what you want, in other words, from a comedy-drama of this tinge.