"Rory O'Shea Was Here" is a shameless heart-tugger of considerable appeal that, like many movies that start off with much going for them, could have been so much better had its makers aimed higher.
The yearning of two severely disabled young men to live in an apartment with the help of a personal assistant, instead of in an institution, is a solid premise, but director Damien O'Donnell and his writers too often defy credibility by injecting action into their comedy-drama in an effort to rev up viewers' emotions. Such blatant moves undercut a pair of quite affecting and persuasive portrayals from James McAvoy and Steven Robertson, plus staunch support from Romola Garai as the young woman whose help they enlist.
McAvoy's handsome Rory, age 20, with trendy spiked and peroxided hair, is stricken with muscular dystrophy that has left him able to move only his head and two fingers. Intact, however, are his cheeky personality and foul mouth. For him life has been reduced to a constant act of defiance. It's immediately clear that he's going to be a cross to bear for Brenda Fricker's Eileen, the no-nonsense director of a high-grade home for the disabled.
Rory sets about venting his frustrations on Robertson's Michael Connolly, a sweet young man with cerebral palsy that has rendered his speech all but unintelligible. Defying probability, Rory quickly starts understanding what Michael struggles to say. They form a bond, with Rory inspiring Michael to rebel against what Rory sees as the dulling effect of an institutionalized life.
But the film does not play fair with Eileen. It's true that when she brings in as entertainment a third-rate cabaret entertainer who delivers "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" with unalloyed smarminess, the effect is both hilarious and sad. Nevertheless, it is not necessary to invest Eileen with Nurse Ratched tendencies to motivate Michael and Rory's growing desire to live on their own. (That Fricker should be cast as Eileen only serves as a reminder of how much better a film is 1989's "My Left Foot," which brought her an Oscar for her portrayal of the loving, strong mother of Daniel Day-Lewis' cerebral palsy-stricken writer.)
The way Rory maneuvers a flat for himself and Michael is inspired, and the byplay between them and Garai's Siobhan, whom they've hired as their caretaker, is amusing and harrowing -- the heart of the film.
Yet even here the filmmakers don't trust the strength of their material, or the talent and skill of their actors. They throw in a reckless high-speed spin that Rory takes in someone's car -- how he manages to pull it off is left off camera because it's so implausible. And the dangerous street chase Rory stages, outmaneuvering some neighborhood kids in his high-powered wheelchair, is too unsettling to be an effective or credible expression of an exuberant free spirit.
"Rory O'Shea Was Here" is, in short, wildly uneven, constantly veering between honest emotions and insights and bald manipulation and contrivance. The result is that McAvoy's brave but irresponsible Rory, Robertson's gradually flowering Michael and Garai's caring and capable Siobhan are all performances that are far more effective than the film as a whole.
'Rory O'Shea Was Here'
MPAA rating: R for language
James McAvoy...Rory O'Shea
Steven Robertson...Michael Connolly
A Focus Features release. Director Damien O'Donnell. Producers James Flynn, Juanita Wilson. Executive producers Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Natascha Wharton, Morgan O'Sullivan. Screenplay by Jeffrey Caine, Story by Christian O'Reilly. Director of photography Peter J. Robertson. Editor Frances Parker. Costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan. Music David Julyan. Production designer Tom Conroy. Art director Stephen Daly. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.
Exclusively at Landmark's Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223.