White Irish Drinkers is a thoughtful coming-of-age story with bracing performances, solid writing and direction by John Gray, and inescapable take-home values that give you a feel-good lift. Set in 1975 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, it tells the story of a bright, sensitive 18-year-old named Brian Leary (charismatic newcomer Nick Thurston) from a working-class family grappling with hardships to make ends meet and find purpose in a bleak existence.
It was a time of Andy Warhol soup cans, Godfather movies and disco fever on the eve of Saturday Night Fever, but unlike John Travolta, Brian escapes from dead-end reality through art. He’s so talented he can make a portrait out of a frosted windowpane with his index finger. His friends have no interest or aptitude for anything beyond a high school diploma they can use to learn car repairs. College? Learning technology? Fine arts? Nobody understands Brian’s dream of going to Carnegie-Mellon to study art, least of all his loving but long-suffering mother (welcome back, Karen Allen) or his abusive, alcoholic longshoreman father, Paddy (the always amazing Stephen Lang), who saves his brutality for Brian’s older brother, Danny (Geoffrey Wigdor).
To escape his hardscrabble life, Danny follows a life of crime, and Brian is on the way to becoming his accomplice. But this is a boy with a conscience who turns the basement under the bagel shop in his parents’ building into a secret art studio where he creates impressionistic charcoal drawings and watercolor sketches of the city around him, donning headphones to drown out the noise and shouting between his parents. Brian also works in a broken-down movie house called the Lafayette (with no E’s on the marquee), where his boss, Whitey (Peter Riegert), plods along, in debt to the mob. Suddenly, like the switch on a light bulb, an idea hits them between the eyes. Through an old connection, Whitey talks the manager of the Rolling Stones into booking the rock group for a secret one-night-only concert prior to their appearance at Madison Square Garden. Even with nothing but word-of-mouth publicity, the sold-out event is the biggest thing that ever happened in Bay Ridge. The revenue from the Rolling Stones tickets will not only save Whitey’s life and his bankrupt theater, but Brian’s share of the profits might get him out of his hopeless blue-collar Brooklyn despair forever. But Brian is the only one who knows his felonious brother is planning a robbery during the show to steal the box-office proceeds. Torn between his loyalty to Whitey, his love for Danny, and his own sense of morality, Brian turns to his new girlfriend, Shauna (Leslie Murphy), for help. Before any choice is made, the tables turn violently in a series of shocking finales, changing all of their lives forever.
The claustrophobic Brooklyn ambience is totally authentic, the friendship between Brian and his buddies is so real it results in the best aimless camaraderie since Marty, and the romantic subplot provides a ray of hope that is touching. White Irish Drinkers is a gritty and moving film about finding the courage to get out of a soul-destroying life before they carry you out. I found it consistently interesting and gratifying, and I was immensely impressed with Thurston, an appealing actor with intelligence and self-assurance who is going places, and writer-director Gray, who has already arrived with a bang.