When we think about Prison dramas we can conjure up images of Bronson, Hunger or most recently A Prayer Before Dawn; all attempts at a true to life biographical picture but with added sensationalism and often stylised brutality. Frank Berry’s Irish prison film Michael Inside however, is a stripped back and unrelenting take on the sub-genre focusing on the long-term effects of incarceration and drug involvement on Ireland’s youth.
Whilst Berry’s film is not based on a true story, its sentiment rings true to the experiences of so many working class young men who become incrementally involved in a life of crime in a system that does not care for them. Reminiscent of the social realist style of Ken Loach, Michael Inside follows Michael McCrea (Dafhyd Flynn), an 18 year old boy who goes down for a 3 month sentence after agreeing to ‘hold’ some drugs for a friend. It’s a simple premise but one that bounces off its smaller details and performances for a nuanced look at the inescapable cycle of incarceration and how it affects McCrea and his community.
Michael’s dad for example, is incarcerated at the start of the film and his mother died of a drug overdose many years ago. Now cared for by his grandfather Francis, in a quietly moving portrayal from Lalor Roddy, Michael is subject to watching those around him embroil themselves in criminal activity, largely dealing drugs. Young boys on Michael’s housing estate talk about prison as almost a rite of passage, listing the latest lads going down and coming out with an insouciant matter. Berry’s exploration of the effects of the prison cycle on multiple generations is a brief but accomplished study. During his stint in prison, Michael becomes the puppet of another inmate who boldly states that “the sentence only begins when you get out”, a poignant statement about the disservice the prison system does to offenders upon release. Michael’s fathers difficulty signing on when in between housing for instance, or Michael’s struggle to get into college to ‘better himself’ and the creation of repeat offenders due to ‘outside’ feuds are rooted in no-fuss realism and result in a complex and thought-provoking narrative.
Dafhyd Flynn’s youthful complexion and boyish haircut lend themselves to such a surprising gradation in Michael’s character. A young man of little words, his performance is delivered through questioning glances and a clenched jaw in a remarkably impressive breakthrough role. Watching Michael McCrea’s journey unfold from seemingly innocent boy to hardened criminal in the film’s quite ferocious final scenes is a punch to the gut and would make quite a fantastic PSA film for troubled young boys in schools.
Michael Inside doesn’t quite reach the brutal levels of other prison films but that’s its success, it never needs to reach for titillating violence but instead tackles the disturbing undercurrents of organised criminality and the unforgiving prison cycle on a recognisable young boy that could easily be living at the end of your street. Berry’s social realist picture is an eye-opening and affecting view of the problems facing working class Irish youth today.
Michael Inside is released in cinemas this Friday (14th)
A special screening of Michael Inside is being held at Prince Charles Cinema, London on Sunday 16th September with a Q&A with director Frank Berry.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here