Ever since Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin’s 1953 charmer Little Fugitive, indie filmmakers have gotten a lot of mileage out of the premise of children out on their own in a big city, confronting its wonders and dangers. Lance Daly’s Kisses lands squarely in that pre-teen runaway genre, though writer-director Daly is more preoccupied with the danger than the wonder. Kisses begins in a run-down Dublin suburb, where Kelly O’Neill lives in a house full of people who barely notice her, while next-door neighbor Shane Curry lives with a drunken father who’s already driven one son out of the house with his temper. During one particularly depressing Christmas, Curry and O’Neill decide to head into the city to find Curry’s older brother, but what starts as a grand adventure turns more serious as the kids grow colder and hungrier.
And Kisses turns way too serious. Daly has a clever visual conceit for the film, which starts in black-and-white—with a sound design that emphasizes the bone-chilling winds of a treeless concrete neighborhood—then moves to color once Curry and O’Neill reach the bustle of downtown. And initially, Daly works some minor magic with his depiction of Dublin as a city full of twinkly lights, Bob Dylan impersonators, and compassionate prostitutes who deliver life lessons about the meaning of a kiss. (“When you kiss, you give or you take,” she says, handily summarizing the movie’s thesis.) Eventually, though, Curry and O’Neill realize that being homeless puts them at risk of being molested by perverts, which—as O’Neill explains about halfway through, in a speech that sucks all the air out of the film—isn’t much different from the life she just fled.
The social ills depicted in Kisses are definitely truer-to-life than a story about two runaways who have a wonderful time. But the harshness of Kisses clashes with the movie’s more fanciful side (as represented by those ersatz Dylans), and ultimately, it just isn’t that original a direction. Compared to movies like Little Fugitive or The 400 Blows or Shane Meadows’ recent Somers Town—all of which balance the harsher realities of life with a strong sense of the individual human spirit—Kisses is dreary to a fault. It looks fantastic, with its shadowy Dublin alleys illuminated by the heroes’ light-up Heelys. But the writing doesn’t have that same glow.