Jealousy could be the most destructive force in youth culture. With hormones raging to drive a need for companionship to help prevail through high school and ready for the next step in life, the power lust, love, convenience, or whatever it is that takes the wheel possesses is never easily overcome. The darkness of anger boiling over when someone incapable of understanding the intricacies of life will take over and cause actions completely out of character from the role model, compassionate soul you have begun to believe you are since everyone else says it. However, if you find yourself relishing with a psychological pat on the back for vengeance served the moment when all reason escapes to leave an acutely devastating capacity for violence, the question becomes whether the monster unleashed is in fact who you’ve been the entire time.
This is what writer Malcolm Campbell and director Leonard Abrahamson are shedding the light on with their film What Richard Did—a look into the last summer before university and adulthood that changed everything with a split-second decision never to be taken back. For Richard Karlsen (Jack Reynor), it was to be his swan song on top of the only world he had ever known. A star rugby player adored by his town, coach, friends, and teammates, his level of maturity is what endears him to kids and adults alike. A kind hearted young man with the foresight to appreciate the sanctity of youth and be willing to protect it with all he’s got, when your son or daughter is out with Richard you can breathe a sigh of relief that he or she will be in good hands.
You must adore this keen sense of morality after seeing underclassmen like ‘Magic Boy’ Jake (Patrick Gibson) taken under his wing or Coach Pat’s (Padraic Delaney) daughter Sophie (Mella Carron) rescued from the advances of a wasted brute while on his watch. He is who you wish your children would become and a man with a successful future within arm’s reach. And that’s what makes the circumstances behind his courtship of Lara Hogan (Roisin Murphy) so precious. He moves slowly so he can be positive she feels the same way about him and to be sure her closeness to teammate Conor (Sam Keeley) is nothing more than friendship. Effectively wooing her and becoming a changed man as a result—the traits so admirable before as a rule end up a bit stifling when centered on the girl he now sees as his alone.
What Richard Did finds itself a cautionary tale about young love devoid of the communication so vital to a healthy relationship. Richard and Lara seem perfectly happy on the surface, but you can see the frayed edges as it escalates to meeting parents and planning the weeks to come when college begins. Still wanting to party and have fun, the testosterone rises and the once calm, collected boys with level heads on their shoulders devolve into the stereotypical jocks we’re used to seeing in coming of age fare such as this. And while their climactic outburst is far from surprising in the context of the plot, the results of their actions may not go where you’d expect. Perhaps the good guy act was just that as selfishness and entitlement prevail in the end with mistakes—no matter how unforgettable—becoming acceptable.
It’s a tough tale of adolescence and the preciousness of life that hits a whole new level of emotion in the aftermath of its life-altering event. Abrahamson lets his actors own the screen as Reynor’s internal battle spills out in a fit of rage we’re unsure he can ever truly escape. His performance takes over the film as the easy-going kid from the start grows up way too fast as a result of tragedy we pray never befalls anyone let alone one with such a bright future. The change in demeanor is huge with him and friends Stephen (Gavin Drea) and Cian (Fionn Walton) as even Murphy gets consumed by the abyss wrestling with allegiances to decide her next step. A character study on guilt and remorse, these young actors captivate in their heartbreaking authenticity.
But it’s Reynor and his father (Lars Mikkelsen) opening up to each other for the first time that the gravity of the consequences hits us. The horror of unsavory compromise is introduced with issues of accident versus intent spinning in your head while wondering what you’d do if it were your child faced with an eternity of sorrow because of an inexcusable mistake. Questions of drugs and alcohol may also crop up with its South Dublin setting’s 18-year old drinking age and pretty liberal parenting concerning supervision, but in the end it’s about accepting our actions and doing what’s right. This is why the ultimate decision is so hard for me to reconcile and why I love Campbell’s refusal to take the easy way out. You may not agree with the conclusion, but the fact real life would probably play out the same way cannot be denied either.
What Richard Did is playing the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 9th, 11th & 15th.