The 1990s offered a period of large scale change in both the U.K and Ireland, as the social structures of the 80s were challenged by a newly emerging social confidence. In Britain, this led to the birth of Brit Pop and political change, while across the Irish Sea young people began to question the beliefs of their parents, government, and church. Looking to the future and not the past in defining what it meant to be Irish in the latter part of the 20th Century. It is within this landscape that writer-director David Freyne’s new film Dating Amber shines a spotlight on the 90s teen experience.
Combining the wit and charm of the Derry Girls with a nuanced and tender story of friendship, identity, and escape. One that encompasses both the male and female experience of ‘coming out’ in the 1990s. Alongside a screenplay rich in the humour, emotion, and awkwardness of youth.
Growing up gay in the early 1990s was not a bed of roses as I know from personal experience. From the continuing fear of AIDS, and the veil of discrimination it cast over the word ‘gay’. To British newspapers who hounded any celebrity who they perceived to be ‘queer’ in a ritualistic sport of ‘outing’. While fellow teens embraced ‘lad culture’ to the full with a mix of toxic masculinity, drinking, sport, and baggy jeans. The very idea of gay men enough to make them shiver over their bottle of Hooch. While Lesbians found themselves reduced to a mere pornographic goal for straight boys hooked on FHM magazine.
Don’t get me wrong, there was also plenty of progress too, but outside of big cities gay teenage life remained something to be ashamed of. A hidden existence of secluded meetings split identities and secretive passions. Of course, here in Britain things did begin to slowly improve by the late 1990s. As a new Labour government heralded the beginning of widespread legal change. But in countries like Ireland where being gay was still a criminal act until 1993, equality took an even slower course. Something I became more than aware of when living in Cork as a student in 1998. The underground gay bars, still hidden from public view, while many LGBTQ young people dreamed of the freedom of London, New York, and Paris.
These themes of escape and community entrapment find a voice in Dating Amber. Where the slow journey towards change hits the buffers of a school environment built on gender constructs and identity. It’s here where we meet Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) a boy committed to following in his dad’s footsteps by joining the army. His school life a daily barrage of homophobic abuse and jokes related to him not having a girlfriend. While his home life is subsumed by his parent’s marital problems and a younger brother who provides daily commentary on his non-existent sex life. Meanwhile, fellow student Amber (Lola Petticrew) suffers the same homophobic taunts and jibes, as everyone speculates about her sexuality. Her volatile life with her mum still caught up in the waves of her dad’s suicide years before.
However, when Amber suggests to Eddie that school life may be easier if they ‘pretend’ to be a couple. Eddie finds himself filled with both shock and horror as he realises Amber knows his closely guarded secret; his sexuality. His own journey of discovery shrouded in confusion and a latent desire for his teacher. While Amber is more advanced and confident, yet equally tired of the homophobia she endures every day. Ultimately leading both teens into a relationship of convenience that soon becomes a journey of love, self-acceptance, support, and escape.
Throughout the story, there are echoes of John Butler’s 2016 Handsome Devil combined with Sex Education and Submarine. Providing us with a warm, funny, and emotional journey into identity that sores with engaging performances. But the originality of Dating Amber comes from the relationship between Amber and Eddie. A relationship that highlights the differing experiences of coming out for both men and women. While embracing the support both genders can offer each other on the journey toward self-acceptance and belonging.
The end result is a truly delightful coming of age film that sings with both intelligence and humour. While wrapping the audience in performances that reflect the awkwardness, excitement, and emotional turbulence of teenage life. In a small town where the freedom to identify as LGBTQ is constrained by the invisible walls of discrimination and fear. The escape hatch only opened through the healing power of friendship, belonging, and shared understanding.
Director: David Freyne
Watch now on Amazon Prime