Here Are The Young Men arrives on Digital Platforms 30th April through Signature Entertainment
Read any modern article exploring masculinity in youth, and the word ‘toxic’ is banded around freely. In fact, the concept and theory of toxic masculinity and its damage to the individual, family, and broader society is now a part of the male social experience. However, what is toxic masculinity? And does this singular term label all boys and young men with little thought as to its impact?
Over recent years, toxic masculinity has become the catchall phrase for male violence and sexism. While at the same time being used to describe a sense of self-entitlement in the male experience. And yet, the suicide rate among men continues to grow, while young men remain underserved in mental health support. Meanwhile, the gender gap in educational attainment increases, with girls outperforming boys at primary and secondary schools. At the same time, white working-class boys from poor communities, on average, perform worse at school than their peers from most other ethnic backgrounds. So does the term toxic masculinity help inform a debate on the male experience? Or does it build further social barriers to change?
Across the film landscape, themes related to masculinity, place, purpose and identity have long formed a part of coming-of-age dramas. Here, movies ranging from Stand By Me to The Outsiders and If… have explored the young male experience. Many of these films centred on the power of the peer group while holding a mirror to the closed emotions many boys carry. These films never sought to label all young men as dangerous, allowing for a diversity of male experience while tying this to social place and position. In turn, ensuring boys and young men in the audience could explore their own emotions and lived experience through the characters onscreen.
In these films, young men are both victims and perpetrators, caring yet conceited and loving but socially restrained. This balance is essential when exploring masculinity in youth. It allows an audience to fully explore the character on screen, taking us beyond simplistic, one-dimensional concepts and ideas. And despite a fascinating setup, it’s here where Eoin C. Macken’s Here Are The Young Men fails to deliver on its initial promise. Based on Rob Doyle’s novel, the movie’s narrative is often confused, lacking the complexity and nuance needed to elevate its core messages. While at the same time never allowing its lead characters to find balance in their representation of the male experience. However, this is also a film bursting with creativity, solid performances and moments of brilliance. The result of which is a goldmine of ideas frustratingly lacking in delivery.
The year is 2003, and Ireland’s economy is booming; the country rapidly changing as business, new housing, and money creates the Celtic tiger. Here, we meet Matthew (Dean Charles Chapman), Kearney (Finn Cole) and Rez (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). All three, bathing in the freedom that comes from the end of school in a summer of alcohol, drugs and low-level criminal activity. The ring leader of the group, Kearney having been expelled from school some months before the final bell rang. However, after witnessing a tragic accident, all three boys find their lives pulled into focus. The event lingering in their minds as they attempt to find a route to adulthood. Their responses to the tragedy creating a gulf in their friendship that will ultimately lead to division, toxicity and destruction.
In its opening chapters, Macken’s movie takes cues from a string of 90s lad culture dramas. However, following the tragic accident, Macken’s film quickly morphs into a much deeper social drama, paying homage to Requiem for a Dream. Here, the boy’s lives, thoughts and mixed emotions are brought to life in a series of fevered visions and dreams. Kearney’s dangerous descent reflected through an imaginary game show where men are encouraged to be men. His search for a template of masculinity, stark, relentless and confused. Meanwhile, Matthew struggles to identify his core beliefs and values, desperately trying to find himself while equally submitting to Kearney’s alpha male influence. Then we have Rez, a perpetual third wheel to Matthew and Kearney, hiding his emotions under a blanket of drugs and alcohol.
The themes of Here Are The Young Men could easily be labelled as a reflection of toxic masculinity in early millennial youth culture. However, they go much deeper than this, reflecting themes of class, culture and a need for positive male influence. Therefore, it is frustrating that each character feels hollow in backstory, our glimpses of family life, vague and unstructured. For example, Kearney’s life lacks a mother, his relationship with his father volatile, hinting at possible domestic violence in the past. A more in-depth exploration of this would have helped the audience identify his motivations instead of portraying him as simply bad, evil and destructive. Similarly, Matthew’s family structure lacks any male influence, his mum disconnected from his life and thoughts. Again, this lacks any time or focus, the reason for his need for Kearney largely unexplored.
However, it is Rez who suffers the most from this lack of character focus, his emotions, including his attempted suicide left in the cold. This lack of space and time results in a movie that feels simplistic in its reflections on masculinity. The labels of toxic behaviour, control and stifled emotions never balanced against the socialisation of each young man. This ultimately leaves a bad taste in the mouth as the film reaches its climax. The answer to Kearney’s behaviour and control leading Matthew to a choice that ultimately makes him just as bad as his mentor.
That is not to say that Here Are The Young Men doesn’t strike gold in parts. For example, its creative use of dreamlike sequences, its discussion on male image and media, and its devastatingly accurate portrayal of peer influence. Alongside this, performances are engaging, nuanced and bold, with both Dean Charles Chapman and Finn Cole lighting up the screen. But, the vast themes raised needed more time in defining male experience in modern society. The film’s sweeping discussion on toxic masculinity falling into the same trap as many modern articles and explorations of manhood. Labelling behaviours and thoughts while not exploring the very social structures that ultimately create them. In turn, unconsciously denying boys and young men the opportunity to remove the shackles of judgement and find a route to liberation and change.