In Graham Baker’s Impulse (1984), toxic waste leaks into a rural town’s milk supply, causing the residents to lose all their inhibitions and to pursue their most violent or sexually taboo urges without censorship. Where Baker’s film was an apocalyptic sci-fi thriller, Love In Kilnerry tells a similar story in an entirely different genre. For while it also concerns an experimental chemical (called P172) released into the local water supply which is said, when ingested, immediately to create “a dramatic increase in sexual libido” – and which EPA spokesperson Rakesh Nibhanupudi (Debargo Sanyal) claims had lab rats literally rutting themselves to death – but this is no end-of-the-world bleakfest, but a sweet, breezy small-town comedy.
Girt on one side by mountains, and on the other by the sea, fictional Kilnerry – shot in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with the surrounding range of peaks added digitally – is a sleepy community naturally sheltered from the outside world. It is a place where change comes only very gradually. Wifi has recently been introduced, but is, literally but also metaphorically, slow – and everything else is a Pleasantville-like time capsule of bygone decades. Local sheriff Gary O’Reilly (played by the film’s writer/director Daniel Keith) likes things just fine that way, and sees it as his duty to protect and (pre)serve the status quo. Yet there is another side to all these conservative values and the failure of Kilnerry to keep up with the times. “This town is dying”, local stationer Nessa Ward (Kathy Searle) tells the mayor and bar owner Jerry Boylan (Tony Triano). “Shops are closing, nobody’s having babies.” Nessa would also like Gary to hurry up a little himself and make his move on her before they both settle permanently into the solitariness of singledom. Meanwhile the symbolic closure of the town’s paper means that that there is literally no more news in Kilnerry. The population may be ageing, but the clock has stopped.
P172 will prove the reagent for change, leading Garry’s widower father Fergal (Roger Hendricks Simon) to dance again with prim god-fearing widow Aednat McLaughlin (Sybil Lines), and Jerry to find new passion with the similarly not-quite-divorced Brigid Kerry (Sheila Stasack), and chemical plant co-workers James (Nathan Wallace) and Eric (Leon Morgan) to come out of the closet, the priest Father Wesley O’Dell (James Patrick Nelson) to discover his nudist tendencies, and near everyone to start succumbing to spring fever. All except Gary, who refuses to drink the Kool Aid, resists the public lewdness and private orgies, and represses his feelings for Ness. Yet with or without the intervention of chemistry, love finds a way.
With its small-town eccentricity, its gentle irreverence and its romantic spirit, Love in Kilnerry comes in a similar vein to Kirk Jones’ Waking Ned Devine (1998), Anand Tucker’s Leap Year (2010) and John Patrick Shanley’s Wild Mountain Thyme (2020). Unlike these, of course, it is not set in Ireland, but Keith’s original play certainly was (in County Donegal), and these Hibernian origins are reflected in the names and indeed accents of several characters, as well as in the (invented) toponym Kilnerry itself. Yet it all unfolds in a fairybook part of coastal America, as an Old World in the New World, and a nostalgic haven of Capra-esque decency ringed by encroaching modernity. This Shangri-La is both paradise and tomb, and it takes an aphrodisiac compound (or at least placebo) to bring it back to life. This focus on mortality, and on the kind of living death that the town has come to represent for so many of its residents, is what ensures that Keith’s film, though very much a homespun comedy, stays rooted in something more serious, as grief and loss touch the lives of all these characters, and as a joyous message of carpe diem also proves a memento mori. The apocalypse, though, is all Gary’s.
Strap: There’s romance in the air and something in the water in Daniel Keith’s sweet small-town comedy of chemical aphrodisiacs and longings for change
© Anton Bitel