‘Dating Amber’ review: ‘Derry Girls’ meets ‘Love, Simon’ in a must-watch teen romance

'Normal People' actor Fionn O'Shea steps out on his own in one of 2020's best coming-of-age dramas

There are a lot of films about first loves and bad dates, but only some of them have staying power – and even less speak to groups beyond straight white people. Dating Amber, we’re glad to say, is different.

Originally titled Beards, the Ireland-set coming-of-age drama has all the qualities of the greatest teen romances, but it dares to be bolder, and focuses on characters that feel more original than we’re used to. The story is simple – boys tease Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) because he doesn’t have a girlfriend. They wonder if he’s gay. Amber (Lola Petticrew) doesn’t have a boyfriend, and even if fewer people tease her (remember that popular trope of the loner girl who people are just a bit afraid of?), everyone still speculates about her sexuality.

They make a pact: to stop the whispering, they’ll date one another. It doesn’t matter what they actually think – what’s important is hiding how they feel, at least until they can get out of where they are. In a tiny rural village in the mid-’90s, all they can dream of is escape.

The film is smart enough to let the viewer understand its original title without explaining it. But, for the sake of clarity: a beard is a colloquial term describing a woman who dates a gay man, to hide the fact that he’s gay. But this isn’t only about Eddie – Dating Amber spends time with its eponymous heroine too, developing both characters with equal care.

Dating Amber
‘Dating Amber’ arrives on Prime Video on June 4. Credit: Prime Video

Elsewhere, subtle body language and clever dialogue keep the film full of surprising and endearing details: when Amber disses Oasis in favour of Bikini Kill; when Eddie shakes a girl’s hand after an excruciating kiss; when they become so comfortable with one another that the colour of his backpack serendipitously matches her duffle coat. Another pleasing nugget is the inclusion of Catastrophe stalwart Sharon Horgan, who plays Eddie’s mum.

Indie fans will notice that there are traces of Richard Ayoade’s Submarine here, another coming-of-ager about an awkward boy and a headstrong girl – even sporting the same heart-shaped sunglasses – but O’Shea and Petticrew make these protagonists entirely their own. Following his performance as Jamie, a wiry and despicable boyfriend, in hit BBC Three drama Normal People, O’Shea entirely transforms here and stakes his claim as a major talent.

He’s not the first angsty teenage boy, but where Timothée Chalamet might have a lanky Hollywood sophistication about him, O’Shea’s frame here is rigid, paralysed with shame, his mind focused on seeming as insignificant as possible so as to not attract attention. His performance is convincing and often heartbreaking – perhaps the biggest name to come out of Normal People won’t belong to one of its leads?

Dating Amber
Barry Ward and Sharon Horgan in ‘Dating Amber’. Credit: Prime Video

Petticrew, too, is outstanding. Amber is wiser, more comfortable than Eddie, and writer-director David Freyne gives her some piercing lines that contain wisdom beyond her years. He lets his confused adolescents think out loud about the expiry dates of their own happiness, without ever tying down their stories to any sort of clichéd melodrama.

Eddie and Amber give new light to familiar feelings. Their trajectory – from strangers to friends to lovers – feels fresher than it actually is, by giving importance to platonic love, to the care of a friend that goes beyond what’s expected. Their love is selfless and courageous, and utterly infectious. It feels like a privilege to watch it unfold.

Details

  • Director: David Freyne
  • Starring: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Barry Ward
  • Release date: June 4 (Amazon Prime Video)
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