Writer-director Graham Jones (“The History Student,” “The Randomers,” “How to Cheat in the Learning Certificate”) can be astutely described as a lyrical Irish filmmaker with moving narratives that seem so personal and profound in dramatic simplicity. In Jones’s latest indie drama Nola and the Clones he helms yet another soulful exposition grounded in the given realities of his disoriented youthful leads. Thoroughly engaging and contemplative, Nola and the Clones is powerful, perceptive and reflective in its frank character study of a lost and hardened young Dublin-based prostitute trying to make sense out of her aimless existence and random encounters with her peculiar male “clientele” that eerily match a similar profile. Indeed, Nola and the Clones is one of Jones’s most daring, provocative and ambitious observational fables that starkly combines a strong sense of urban disenchantment with a raw taste for the whimsy.
There are always majestic traces of insight, curiosity and exploration in Jones’s intriguing yet gentle brand of observational storytelling. More important is the critical casting of adventurous performers to carry out the challenging display of uncertainty that meshes with the film’s defining theme of quiet despair. Additionally, one of the more welcoming consistencies in Jones’s directorial endeavors is his spirited usage of a bouncy soundtrack and scenic (or sometimes gritty) locales that effectively fuels his stories with decorative urgency. Jones’s films will never be mistaken for its flashiness or eye-popping production values. Instead, understated but expressive fare such as Nola and the Clones will basically resonate with a needed low-key emotional punch. Thought-provoking, original and hauntingly heartfelt, this intimate film puts to shame the usual Hollywood spin on the manufactured conception of female disenchantment and empowerment.
Nola (Caoimhe Cassidy, “The Devil’s Woods”) is a runaway-turned-homeless hooker with a heart of stone because she has become cold and wary of men despite offering her spiritless body to them for her sexual services. Nola is deeply damaged and a lot of her embedded pain and paralysis of feeling is due to the unresolved past regarding her negligent mother who apparently became the reckless vehicle for the loads of duplicitous men exploiting her continuously. The heavy-handed psychological scar that Nola internalized from her victimized mother was for her to assume being a sexual “plaything” for the worthless guys to enjoy. In fact, Nola reasoned that the only philosophical insight that her mother advised was for the importance of “always looking good” to the discriminating male eye. Naturally, one can see why Nola has major self-esteem issues and a deep-seeded distrust for men regardless of their good or bad intentions. Plus, it did not help matters any that Nola’s maddening mentality towards the male species may have been harshly developed by her drunken Daddy Dearest, not to mention an abusive former boyfriend with the ready-made label of “slut” pinned to her already disillusioned demeanor. In essence, Nola’s early male influences have not been exactly what one would call stellar or supportive.
There are two main components that feel like daily drudgery in Nola’s numbing existence. First, it is her constant wandering of the indifferent streets as she watches as others pass her by en route to their safer, structured lives. Some may feel compelled to drop some loose change in her cup as she huddles on the cement sidewalk curbs. Some might feel generous to offer her a couple of cigarettes here and there. For the most part Nola has to improvise and find temporary comfort from the exposed outdoors whenever possible. You name it and Nola has made makeshift pit-stops at shelters, coffee shops, banks, libraries, bus depots, furniture stores, toy stores, arcades, clothing and shoe stores, cafes — anywhere that presents a resting place for her to hide her aimless frustration from circling the same alienating streets and alleyways. Sadly, Nola is not a stranger to her choice of park or public benches either.
The second recurring component is Nola’s dealings with the various “clones” (all played by Joseph Lydon, “The Randomers”) that come across her path of day-to-day malaise. The cloning characters of young male opportunists that parade by Nola are attracted and intrigued by her. Undoubtedly, Nola is a natural dark-haired beauty and she is just the right experimental tool for performing any imaginable hormonal manipulation at will. But the cynical Nola sees through the transparent come-ons from these so-called cunning cads. She knows the real deal at hand that all these phony guys want to do is get a cheap thrill with playing footsies with a homeless street whore . . . nothing more, nothing less. When Nola is called upon to conduct her “business” she does just that and expects nothing more than what she is there to do. Specifically, one respectable young motorist offers her a ride and ends up hearing about Nola’s sordid backstory that reveals to the audience her suffocating inner conflicts and piercing hurting. At this point we fully understand the foundation of the demons that drive the vulnerable Nola and her everlasting stance on the crippling residue that men have done to violate her fragile soul.
Nola and the Clones is vastly affecting as Jones delves into the mundane psyche of a young wounded woman searching yet never finding that permission to embrace idyllic womanhood. Cassidy is absolutely riveting as the dejected Nola whose mental emptiness is eclipsed by the elusive potential she could have achieved if it were not for the road block of hardship that stunted her secured femininity. Nola is actually very philosophical, well-informed, forthright and stirring about her destructive misgivings. She is shattered in personalized tragedy but strangely alluring and mysterious. Lydon is quite inventive and adventurous as the variety of clones both smarmy and sympathetic that challenges Cassidy’s Nola to wallow soundly in fulfilling pathos.
The gritty flow of Jones’s poignant production is convincingly realized and the performances by Cassidy and Lydon are remarkable and genuine. We have seen our share of clichéd message movies about youth-oriented destitution, but thankfully skilled gems such as Nola and the Clones will remind us that not all moving melodramas about rebellious young women on the edge simply belong on the Lifetime Channel.