White Irish Drinkers is a thoughtful coming-of-age story with bracing performances, solid writing and direction by John Gray and inescapable take-home values that give you a feel-good lift. Set in 1975 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, it tells the story of a bright, sensitive 18-year-old named Brian Leary (a superb job by charismatic newcomer Nick Thurston) from a working-class family grappling to make ends meet and find purpose in a bleak existence. It was a time of Andy Warhol soup cans, Godfather movies and disco on the eve of Saturday Night Fever, but unlike John Travolta, Brian escapes from dead-end reality through art.
He’s so talented that he can make a complete portrait with his index finger on a frosted windowpane. His friends have no interest or aptitude for anything beyond a high-school diploma that they can use to learn car repairs or apply for jobs as sanitation workers. Nobody understands Brian’s dream of going to college to Carnegie-Mellon to study art, least of all his loving but long-suffering mother (welcome back, Karen Allen) or his abusive, alcoholic longshoreman father Paddy (the always amazing Stephen Lang), who saves his brutality for Brian’s older brother, Danny (Geoff Wigdor). To escape his hardscrabble life, Danny follows a life of crime, and Brian is on the way to becoming his accomplice. But this is a boy with a conscience who turns the basement room under the bagel shop in his parents’ building into a secret art studio, where he creates impressionistic charcoal drawings and watercolor sketches of the city around him, donning headphones to drown out the noise and shouting between his parents.
Brian also works in a broken-down movie house called the Lafayette with no E’s on the marquee, where his boss, Whitey (Peter Riegert), plods along, in debt to the mob. Suddenly, an idea hits them both between the eyes. Through an old connection, Whitey contacts the manager of the Rolling Stones and talks him into booking the rock group for a secret one-night-only concert prior to an appearance at Madison Square Garden. Even with nothing but word-of-mouth publicity, the event sells out and becomes the biggest thing that ever happened in Bay Ridge. The revenue from the Rolling Stones tickets will not only save Whitey’s life and his bankrupt theater, but Brian’s share of the profits might get him out of his hopeless blue-collar Brooklyn despair forever. But Brian is the only one who knows his felonious brother is planning a robbery during the show to steal the box-office proceeds. Torn between his loyalty to Whitey, his love for Danny and his own sense of morality, Brian turns to his new girlfriend, Shauna (Leslie Murphy), for help. Before any choice is made, the tables turn violently in a series of shocking finales, changing all of their lives forever.
The claustrophobic Brooklyn ambience is totally authentic; the friendship between Brian and his buddies is so real it results in the best aimless camaraderie since Marty; and the romantic subplot provides a ray of hope that is touching. White Irish Drinkers is a gritty and moving film about finding the courage to get out of a soul-destroying life before they carry you out. I found it consistently interesting and gratifying, and I was immensely impressed with Mr. Thurston, an appealing actor with intelligence and self-assurance who is going places, and writer-director John Gray, who has already arrived with a bang.
White Irish Drinkers
Running time 109 minutes
Written and directed by John Gray
Starring Nick Thurston, Karen Allen, Stephen Land, Geoff Wigdor