Aoife McArdle’s dreamlike Realist wonderland Kissing Candice is an emotionally and visually impressive feature film debut.

Kissing Candice, the feature debut from Northern Ireland’s Aoife McArdle, begins in a dream sequence. As the film’s writer and director, the opening establishes McArdle’s clear fluency in the language of film. The filmmaker uses lighting to convey emotion; uses camera movement to guide the viewer’s eyes; and the flinch of an arm or the glance of an eye act as substitutes for words. Of course, immense credit is to be paid to the film’s excellent cinematographer Steve Annis, editor Dan Sherwen, and lead actress Ann Skelly. However, it’s the way every element of filmmaking comes together that solidifies McArdle’s talent.

Following the eponymous Candice (played by Skelly), Kissing Candice is both literally and figuratively on the border between two worlds. Literally, because the film is set in the heart of Northern and Southern Ireland’s tensions, bordered between the two lands, and figuratively because of the dreamlike world that seeps into Candice’s real life.

As Candice’s epileptic fit brings her hazy imagination back to stark reality, the viewer will be unsure of what the film is about. However, by the film’s end, the viewer will realize McArdle has told us what will happen within the opening few minutes. The fire on Jacob’s (Ryan Lincoln) arm, the viciously enticing deep red lighting, the up and down arrows in a deserted parking lot; these visual clues allude to what’s in store for Candice. Each clue acts as a visual foreshadower to a vital point in Candice’s life.

Kissing Candice, like all great stories, is about love and death. By channeling the effects of a young boy’s death on a small community through seventeen-year-old Candice, McArdle uses her teenage lead in the same way authors like Donna Tartt or playwrights like Kenneth Lonergan do: to represent being on the cusp of adulthood. Candice becomes someone through which the viewer can project their dreams and fear of failure because Candice has neither achieved these dreams nor reached failure — yet. And again, like Lonergan, McArdle portrays Candice as messy, raw, honest; real. The viewer never really knows what – or who – it is Candice truly wants (she’s certainly smart enough to know she’s simply in love with the idea of the boy in her dream). Yet it’s this lack of information that somehow makes Candice a rounded, fully-formed character.

McArdle allows time for moments of silence, often letting the camera linger on the reaction or action of her characters’ faces. By leaving viewers with nothing but a close-up of Candice’s face after she has just seen, for example, a fish cut alive, McArdle makes clear to the viewer that she has faith in Skelly’s performance. And it’s Skelly’s performance that often makes Kissing Candice, with the actress able to speak to the viewer through her eyes. Likewise, Lincoln adds a sense of mysterious complexity to his character that will make you want to spend more time getting to know him nearly as much as Candice does. And from the supporting actors, McArdle elicits performances that makes the viewer feel like they know the character from a single line.

Many will come to call Kissing Candice “dreamy,” and, whilst the film’s lighting, subject matter and ending certainly justifies this description, there’s also another important element that McArdle communicates effortlessly: realism. Portraying the surrounding areas of a small neighborhood and open fields and expanses in stark, realistic lighting, the filmmaker often lets her scenes begin a little earlier than most editors would choose.

In one scene, a camera creeps around a building facing forward, allowing the viewer to see the symmetrical, monotonous gray houses in front. In the same shot, we pan over to Candice and a neighbor talking on swings, slowly moving in. Most would start the scene with the full body shot of Candice, yet by allowing the camera to linger on the houses, McArdle creates an atmosphere that is comparable to the French realist masters Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne and Britain’s Clio Barnard. By blending realist filmmaking techniques into Candice’s dream representations, the filmmaker stoops her film in reality, with a visceral sense of urgency at the film’s core.

You would be forgiven if you did not believe Kissing Candice was Aoife McArdle’s feature debut. Whilst the filmmaker has experience in music videos, commercials, and short films, the fact that Kissing Candice is the director’s feature debut is still surprising. For a film so assured, stylised and well-paced, McArdle has certainly made an impressive, and memorable, debut. Let’s hope she has more stories to tell. Kissing Candice is not to be missed.

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