Movie goers in a theater.

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A review of the film “The Quiet Girl”

April 26, 2023 
During a scene early in the recent Irish film “The Quiet Girl,” the school bell rings, and the children start running back to the schoolhouse. Except for young Cáit, who takes this opportunity to climb over the school yard’s stone fence.

Termed “the Wanderer” by her ne’er-do-well father, Cáit seems most content to be off alone.  Her family’s farmhouse is dark and dingy, filled with her parents’ many children, with young Cáit barely regarded by parents and siblings alike. 

Her mother is expecting again, and soon, Cáit is taken three hours away to spend the summer with her mother’s cousin and her husband. Her father barely speaks to her, dropping her off with the most minimal of pleasantries. Little effort was made to prepare Cáit that she is to spend the summer there. (Her father even departs with her suitcase still in the trunk, leaving her no clothing or personal effects.)

Her father’s parting word: “Try not to fall into the fire, you.”

This terseness has framed Cáit’s life to date. Impoverishment pervades rural Ireland, yet her family seems to be profoundly stilted, barely interacting with one another and leaving much to the side, warmth and emotion foremost.

Cáit starts to adjust to this strange new place. Eibhlín Cinnsealach and her husband Seán maintain a farm and dairy operation. Even though they too seem distant, Eibhlín offers tenderness, taking young Cáit to get bathed and settled into her new room, providing some clothing to get her out of the only outfit she had.

The Cinnsealachs are frugal and live their lives to the needs of the dairy schedule. Yet their home is the opposite of Cáit’s family home. They regularly eat in the sunlit farmhouse kitchen, and Cáit soon begins helping with the meals and learning how to vacuum and other chores. Eibhlín brushes Cáit’s hair and even the initially distant Seán becomes warmer gradually toward Cáit. His gifting of a small biscuit laid upon the kitchen table as he passed by is a quiet and revelatory moment about how the three of them are being changed by this summer together.

The emotional core of the film comes after a neighbor accompanies Cáit down the road after attending a wake. The neighbor asks some nosy, gossipy questions (does Eibhlín use butter or margarine in her baking?) Then the woman shares information that the Cinnsealachs have avoided telling Cáit: the clothes she had been wearing since arriving are those of their deceased son. Years ago, their boy drowned in the farm’s slurry pit.

“The Quiet Girl,” is a powerful reminder to appreciate the lower key approach, most often encouraged during Lent but usually ignored other times of the year for Christians.

The loss and grief borne by the Cinnsealachs is eased by the quiet Cáit, whose good disposition was barely recognized by her own family. She wanders less, staying close to Seán with the farm chores and a daily run up and down the farm’s main road to gather the mail. She helps Eibhlín with household chores, a mother/child type relationship Cáit had never known and Eibhlín thought lost long ago.

Alas, summers do end. When Cáit is returned to her family, the contrast of these households is reinforced. Once again, Cáit is barely acknowledged with her father greeting his daughter as a prodigal returned (a moment of no small irony given how Cáit was given no choice in the sending away). Her siblings pass through without a greeting or hug to welcome her home. Her mother seems overwhelmed now with yet another child to care for and no real help from her husband, likely soon off to the pub and some philandering with other women.

Cáit is the namesake character for “The Quiet Girl,” based on “Foster,” a 2010 novella written by Claire Keegan. Her silence can be a shield and a solace for her, whereas the adults surrounding her at either home tend to be caught up in the denial and secrets that numb their emotions. In the right household, Cáit blossoms and encourages her temporary caretaker family to open their hearts once more.

Being the positive adult in the life of a child has no end of good. The Cinnsealachs provide Cáit with a positive home and an atmosphere where she can come out of her self-protective cocoon, justifiably built over the years growing up in her family of origin. Families who live with privation have great challenges, yet some develop resilience in learning how to make do with less or to find validation in the warmth of relationships. Kindness can be costly, yet it is free when one chooses to depend on it as a way to cope and interact with the world.

As a farm kid myself, I felt some familiarity with the Cinnsealachs from the experiences I had with my parents growing up. The resilience to get through life, sometimes not knowing what your labors would yield with crops or the prevailing market prices when it was time to sell grain or livestock, was hard won.  

My grandparents’ generation knew two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl in addition to the many ups and downs of crops, land challenges, and costs rising (never falling) for farming. The gentleness of a biscuit just wordlessly left to the side resonated with my own experiences of years of piano lessons paid for when money was tight, or the indulgence of a comic bookstore visit when in a far-away town to pick up a tractor or bailer part when we inevitably broke down in the field (usually at times when we least could afford a delay, due to workload or impending storms.)

On the other hand, the film is a powerful reminder to appreciate the lower key approach, most often encouraged during Lent but usually ignored other times of the year for Christians. The contemplative approach or the ability to withdraw rather than engage can be nourishing, even if I have to force myself to remember that. Quietness can be a powerful way to heal and balance life, far more than the noise and bluster as people try to bluff or power through the uncertainty and grief that otherwise might consume.

Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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