Rory O'Shea Was Here (a.k.a. Inside I'm Dancing)

(2005) ** 1/2 R
104 min. Focus Features. Director: Damien O'Donnell. Cast: James McAvoy, Romola Garai, Steven Robertson, Gerard McSorley, Tom Hickey.

The Irish dramedy Rory O'Shea Was Here is partly an "issue picture" about the rights of paraplegics to live independently, but primarily a buddy comedy laced with the hurt of exclusion. Discriminating filmgoers will bristle at its constant manipulations, but under it's original title, Inside I'm Dancing, the film has already proven to be a crowd pleaser with mass audiences abroad.

James McAvoy (Bright Young Things) stars as Rory O'Shea, the McMurphy with muscular dystrophy who shakes up the "cuckoo's nest" that is the Carrigmore Residential Home (Brenda Fricker of My Left Foot plays the resident "Nurse Ratched"). At this "Special Home for Special People," the roguish Rory meets mousy Michael (Steven Robertson), whose cerebral palsy and speech impairment render him incoherent to most. Michael mostly has to spell out words by indicating letters on a card, but the attentive and experienced Rory "gets" Michael right away; before long, they're compatriots in living life to the fullest.

Writer Jeffrey Caine quickly draws the battle lines. Fricker's Eileen pettily denies Rory the right to do his hair as he pleases and understandably if brusquely shuts Rory down when he blasts music and sings loudly at night. Rory's acting out is, of course, his expressed way to let everyone "know I'm fucking alive!" Michael does Rory's hair for him, and Rory returns the favor by taking Michael bar-hopping when they're supposed to be raising funds for Carrigmore. In one of the bars, the twosome meet an attractive young woman, Siobhan (Romola Garai of Vanity Fair), who will eventually become their living assistant.

Differently abled characters are too seldom portrayed on screen, so it's easy to root for Rory O'Shea Was Here. McAvoy's intent interpretation of a young man's a valiant struggle to seize the day proves again that he's one to watch. Robertson starts out stagy, screwing up his face into wide-eyed and twitchy contortions, but he grows into the part, particularly when the film's tone darkens. The two make a good double act, as when Rory introduces Michael as his barrister before the Independent Living Allowance board.

It's all rather TV-movie-ish, allowing the audience to consistently stay a step ahead of the story. Siobhan will inspire romantic complications, and the characters will face crushing disappointments capped with uplifting hope for the future. The film is at its best, then, when at its most irreverent and least conventional. If the overall impression of the film is rather mawkishly obvious (witness a subplot involving Michael's deadbeat dad), at least director Damien O'Donnell keeps precocious humor percolating. Rory attends a costume party as Dr. Strangelove, and protests, "That's discrimination!' when police refuse to arrest him for joyriding.

That humor too often feels like an artificial insistence of spirit in the face of very real challenges. In other moments, O'Donnell patiently observes the trying rituals of a paraplegic, like brushing teeth or getting in bed, in real time. Rory O'Shea Was Here can be exasperating, but finally, the difficulty of winning the right of independent living gets its due as an essential social responsibility. "How do you learn to be responsible?" Rory asks. "You live in the world."

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