THE DRUMMER AND THE KEEPER

★★★

FUN AND SENSITIVE BUT A LITTLE TOO SAFE

IRISH FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
19th May 2019

‘The Drummer and the Keeper’ follows 20-something Gabriel (Dermot Murphy), a surly, curly-haired, hearse-driving drummer in an indie band, prone to spouting pretentious musings about rock star life. His bandmates and his sister Alice (Aoibhinn McGinnity) hold an intervention for him when his behaviour starts to spiral out of control (the film opens with the striking image of Gabriel dragging a sofa into the middle of a beach before lighting it on fire).

After being pressured to seek treatment, he is diagnosed with “bipolar disorder with delusional and psychotic episodes”. Gabriel is told to work with his therapist to straighten himself out, or he will be kicked out of the band. Repelled by the prospect of being on medication for the rest of his life but with left with few options, he reluctantly agrees to seek help.

A somewhat clunky setup sees his therapist encourage him to take up physical activity, which leads to him playing football at a local home for disabled youths. There he meets Christopher (Jacob McCarthy), a teenager with Asperger syndrome and aspirations of playing as goalkeeper.

'THE DRUMMER AND THE KEEPER' TRAILER

The dysfunctions of the two young men clash. Gabriel tries bending the rules but Christopher likes things ordered and logical due to his Asperger's. They argue. Gabriel pushes Christopher over. Although the older man initially sees the other mental health patients as “freaks” and “retards”, he eventually comes to understand and respect them via his tentative friendship with Christopher.

For decades, films (particularly the big-budget Hollywood kind) colluded in the dismissal of disability by ignoring it or glamorising the subject. The insistence that, say, manic depression and autism come accompanied by good looks, unusual charm and near-magical powers hasn't endeared people with these conditions to the rest of us. It's increased the burden on them, by placing unrealistic expectations on their capacities.

First-time writer and director Nick Kelly has a son on the autistic spectrum. Several scenes in ‘The Drummer and the Keeper’ feature autistic extras and Asperger’s advocacy group Aspire were consultants on the film, demonstrating goodwill and a sensitive handling of the subject matter on the filmmaker's part.

There’s undeniably fun to be had in some of first-time writer/director Nick Kelly’s set pieces, but the steadfast refusal to innovate, along with some bland dialogue, leads to a gradual sense of diminishing returns.

When it comes to the acting, Dermot Murphy delivers an intense performance, adding just enough warmth and nuance to Gabriel’s roughness. The bonding between the two men, with Gabriel learning sensitivity and control while he teaches Christopher about the wilder parts of life, hits every single beat you’d expect. There’s undeniably fun to be had in some of Nick Kelly’s set pieces, but the steadfast refusal to innovate, along with some bland dialogue, leads to a gradual sense of diminishing returns.

Even with its unusual focus on the difference between mental health issues and developmental disorders, there’s hardly a second of ‘The Drummer and the Keeper’ that has the capacity to surprise. The film builds towards an implausible third act and ends without exploring much new ground. One fresh thing it offers is a scene of panicked discussion that Asperger’s is being "abolished", referring to the recent decision by the psychiatric community to discontinue Asperger syndrome as a diagnosis and use the broader term autism spectrum disorder.

While it may devolve into predictability (and feature a naff musical number involving mental health patients), ‘The Drummer and the Keeper’ is an amusing and moving journey that celebrates the conditions of its characters rather than humiliate them.

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