Dating Amber review: a witty, likeable and recommended streaming treat

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Dating Amber tells the story of a young couple in 1990s Ireland – but it’s a relationship of convenience, as it turns out.

I liked this. Quietly slipped onto the Amazon Prime Video service over the weekend, Dating Amber has the constituent ingredients of a romcom, but not that much intent of following the recipe to the letter. What we have instead is a sweet, moving, witty and moving coming of age tale, in romcom-ish clothing.

Written and directed by David Freyne, Dating Amber follows Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and, well, Amber (Lola Petticrew), two youngsters on the verge of leaving school in mid-1990s Ireland. Their school isn’t the most welcoming of places. The sex education video involves a nun and some rather odd hand gestures. The playground is a cauldron of bravado and homophobia. And into this both Eddie and Amber are taunted for their sexuality, to the point where they decided to pretend they’re in a relationship, just to get the bullies off their backs.

It’s a premise that Freyne’s script and some tight editing sets up effectively and efficiently, with no little wit. In fact, the first part of the film is frontloaded with plenty of laughs. But it also sows the seeds for the backdrop to both of the lead characters, and the difficulties they’re up against.

Eddie, after all, is expected to go into the army. That’s what his dad, played by Barry Ward, did. The strained relationship his parents have is bubbling in the background, as is the concern and love of his mum, played by Sharon Horgan.

For Amber, she helps her mum run a caravan park, with a nice sideline business in renting out vans by the hour to her randy school colleagues. But there’s space given to explore the strain between Amber and her mum, and the deeper reasons underpinning that.

As the pair embark on their relationship, so they also try and find – often reluctantly – where their true feelings lie, and this lays the crumbs for a more sombre second half of the picture. Here, real life plays its oftentimes not very pleasant tricks on the pair, whose friendship is inevitably tested, with their armour struggling to hold the prejudices and expectations around them at bay.

It makes for a tonally slightly jumpy film, one that occasionally loses its grip and momentum, but never its heart. For anchoring it throughout, alongside Freyne’s writing (and some nicely framed shots), are the two lead performances. Fionn O’Shea’s haunting eyes for instance betray the sadness within his character, and his compressed, superb work here is really something. He acts as ably with silence and a look, and I found myself yearning for happiness for him.

Lola Petticrew is an incredible explosion of life on screen, meanwhile, displaying a real skill for turning from comedy to drama and back again relatively quickly. Without spoiling anything, her character goes through quite a journey in the film, and Petticrew feels like pitch perfect casting. Both of the two young leads are exciting talents, and are excellent here.

The film itself can’t fully escape the feeling that it feels quite low key. Likewise, by existing within the framework of a romantic comedy many of its beats feel familiar. But then we’re back at the criticisms levelled at Love Simon if we’re not careful. Sure, Love Simon was a conventional romcom at heart. But when had their been a mainstream, conventional romcom with a gay young man at the heart of it?

Dating Amber does find its place in the world, and I’m glad it does. Sure, it feels like a slightly long 92 minutes, and it’s at its very best when Amber and Eddie are on screen together. But it’s worth going a level or two down on the Amazon menu to find. I look forward to seeing what all concerned do next.

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