When you watch a movie about a caged bird, there’s usually an implication that you’ll eventually have to learn to let the bird go. The Sparrow from writer and director Michael Kinirons will make you rattle every inch of that cage for 90 minutes, riddled with anxiety over knowing it has to get out but knowing just as well that it wouldn’t be safe if it did. Kevin (Ollie West) is a bird caged by his grief over his mother’s death, the circumstances around it, and how the rest of his family has reacted differently. His father, Larry (David O’Hara), is the keeper of his cage, shaming him, setting his older brother Robbie (Eanna Hardwicke) against him, and being nothing but cold. But he’s also a bird himself. He is trapped by his grief, his masculinity (an ongoing theme throughout the Capital Irish Film Festival 2023, where The Sparrow screened), and his rage over his wife.
The cage metaphor runs through to the final moments and perfectly captures the tension between the safety and security of captivity, the longing to be free, and the danger of being uncaged before the time is right. It’s also a literal part of the movie. Kevin rescues an injured bird that mirrors his same circumstance in many ways. It gives a literal piece to watch while Kevin endures much of the same with his father.
For 90 minutes, you will be overcome with anxiety. First, because of the evidently broken family Kevin has to endure. Then because of the heartbreak you have to watch him go through again and again by way of his mother and then a crush stolen by his brother. He literally cages himself in the tiny attic of his house, where he holds his mother’s keepsakes. But then, because the movie really begins. Kevin accidentally kills Robbie. And he lies about it. And so he becomes trapped in yet another cage, trying so desperately to hold in this secret out of fear of how his father will react.
So much of what makes this film incredible is West. His character isn’t necessarily anything special. He’s a typical middle child and emo kid who is sweet, sensitive, and has no especially notable traits. But West, in his first screen role, gives such painful take after take. His longing, misery, fear, and craving for love and approval are held deeply on his face at every last moment.
It’s excruciating to watch him any time his mother comes up. Firstly, the editing around some of Kevin’s most panicked moments help add enormous tension with its quick and erratic-feeling cuts reflecting his heightened state. And the lighting in some key dark outdoor scenes illuminates some limited but specific parts of the screen. Kevin’s also constantly compared to his mother, and how ought he feel about that? It makes his father and brother furious to see her in Kevin. It makes Kevin proud because he wants to be an iconoclast like her. But in a scene where he dons her lipstick to feel even closer in a moment of grief, it unleashes his fathers’ utmost rage for the fact that he’s a man wearing lipstick, let alone her’s. Kevin’s painted nails, kindness, and loving his mother all make Kevin too effeminate in Larry’s eyes. Yet another cage holding Kevin and Larry alike.
You fear and loathe Larry, but you also can’t help but empathize with him either. It’s not his fault he’s been shaped into his masculinity, holding so much rage and so little capacity for sympathy for Kevin. O’Hara plays him as a monstrous figure in Kevin’s life with a penultimate scene unlike anything I could have expected to see, even in my worst anticipation. His last line was genuinely chilling. But in his grieving throughout the rest of The Sparrow, you see the father he might once have been or maybe even could be. It’s tragic, as a man so clearly trapped in a cage of his own, and all the more difficult for Kevin because this is the father he wishes he could keep and knows he can’t if the truth comes out. But the final scene broke me completely. I was numbed by my anxiety and fear for Kevin so much that it took until this moment for the flood of emotions to finally break through.
I wish the female characters had more to do than merely exist or take on the burdens of the men around them. Kevin’s sister takes on much of his burdens with the bird he’s caring for. A character central to the plot at first, Hannah (Isabelle Connolly) gets reduced to an object of affection and rage for different characters. And Kevin’s aunt serves only as a shoulder to cry on a couple of times and dress a wound. None of them have any agency outside of their relationships with the men around them, which is a shame, because they’re each in a position in relation to the main characters and plots to have had more of an impact or have been more impacted themselves. It doesn’t detract from the movie as it exists, as their roles are minute, but I can imagine how even richer it could have been otherwise.
A simple and understated plot, considering the gravity of its circumstances and family dynamic, The Sparrow is a superbly crafted tale of utter tragedy, fear, and imprisonment. West and O’Hara give stellar performances across every human emotion. The movie gives nothing away easily and holds you so tightly all the way through until the very last frame.
The Sparrow screened at the Capital Irish Film Festival 2023. Follow the rest of our coverage here.
- Rating - 8.5/108.5/10
The Sparrow gives nothing away easily and holds you so tightly all the way through until the very last frame.