Writer-director John Gray digs into his own background to create the ardent and atmospheric White Irish Drinkers, a semi-autobiographical look at two brothers growing up in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn in 1975. Gray, best known for the CBS series Ghost Whisperer, avoids any trace of the supernatural here. The close, cramped intimacy of this film is so real it stings.
Nick Thurston nails every nuance as Brian Leary, 18, a wannabe artist who has to sneak off to paint in a neighborhood that slaps away pretensions. Gray identifies deeply with Brian, not as a painter, but as a kid who dreamed of being a filmmaker. Brian’s swaggering older brother Danny (the excellent Geoff Wigdor) is a small-rime crook who finds easier acceptance among his peers, laddie-boys who are proud to dodge the drug scene in favor of partying hard as white Irish drinkers.
What unites the brothers is a shared love/hate relationship with their longshoreman father Paddy (a superb Stephen Lang), a boozehound with a penchant for smacking around Danny and his own too forgiving wife Margaret (Karen Allen, her expressive eyes a mirror into the emotional pain Margaret holds inside).
The performances are uniformly terrific, finding the specific details that create a universal truth. Something hidden in Paddy’s past allows Brian to escape his father’s fists. The result for Brian is survivor’s guilt. He finds sexual comfort with Shauna (Leslie Murphy), a travel agent who shares his dreams of busting out of Brooklyn. And he latches onto a surrogate father in Whitey (a splendid Peter Riegert), who hires Brian to work at his movie theater. The plot pivots on Whitey’s jackpot scheme to call in a favor and have the Rolling Stones play at his theater for an hour before they head off for a concert at Madison Square Garden.
Gray builds tension as Whitey gears up for his big night and Danny preps to rob the box office. But the soul of the movie lies in the legacy of violence and the dynamics that can connect a family or crush it. For Gray, White Irish Drinkers is one from the bruised heart.