Nearly a century after James Joyce dispatched his Ulysses to Dublin's Nighttown, Irish writer-director Lance Daly sends two 11-year-olds down some of the same streets. But the kids' poetic guide is not some exalted Irish author -- it's the bard of Hibbing, Bob Dylan.
Slight but engaging, and considerably energized by its two young leads, Daly's Kisses gives several fresh spins to one of Irish cinema's most common recent subjects: troubled working-class children on the lam. Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) lives next door to a different Dylan (Shane Curry) in a suburban housing project so bleak it's in black and white. Kylie has already decided that she and Dylan will someday marry, but they have plenty to overcome first.
Dylan and his mother are regularly beaten by the boy's father. Dylan's older brother, Barry, has already fled, although neighborhood gossip has it that he was killed by his dad. Meanwhile, Kylie is suffering a different sort of abuse from her dreaded uncle.
As a black Christmas looms, Dylan flees his father and Kylie evades her uncle. The boy grabs his asthma inhaler, the girl nabs a hidden roll of bills, and together they head downtown. They don't take the bus, though: In one of several sequences that neatly combine the prosaic and the mythic, the kids hop a ride on a boat that dredges trash from the canal leading to the city. As Kylie and Dylan make their getaway, color seeps into the images.
The canal episode introduces two motifs: The boat's operator (David Bendito) is the first to mention that Dylan shares the name of a great singer-songwriter, whose tunes will punctuate the runaways' adventure. The dredge pilot is also the first in a series of recent immigrants to Ireland who show more kindness to Dylan and Kylie than do their own countrymen. (Or kin.)
With money in Kylie's pocket, the kids initially have fun. They buy new clothes, including wheelie sneakers that will prove essential to the plot. But once all the Euros are spent, Dylan and Kylie realize they're hungry and homeless. And the quest to find Barry doesn't get them anywhere, although it does earn Dylan a kiss on the cheek from an African hooker with the usual heart of gold.
Carefully plotted, Kisses is divided into four chapters, each sealed with a kiss (not all of them pleasurable). Despite the movie's naturalism -- including Dublin diction so authentic that it's subtitled for American viewers -- such devices feel overly contrived.
Three random encounters with Dylan acolytes, for example, are a bit much for one December night in Dublin. But then Daly nicely undercuts the movie's musical fixation by introducing the great man himself -- not Bob, but an impersonator played by an actor Irish-film buffs will recognize.
If Kisses makes Dublin look as ominously deep-shadowed as Gotham City, that's appropriate to the child's-eye view. The movie is keyed to its expressive young actors, with special attention to the threats that loom for O'Neill's Kylie. The almost-pubescent girl escapes her uncle only to find herself in a city populated by hookers, strippers and an apparent pederast so scary he might as well be the local bogeyman the kids have feared all their lives.
Dublin is no city of refuge, then. When Dylan and Kylie return to the 'burbs and the color drains from their lives again, they could even conclude, however sadly, that there's no place like home.