Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Movie Review (Sundance 2024): ‘Kneecap’ Examines Talent Vs. Timing

Director: Rich Peppiatt
Writer: Rich Peppiatt
Stars: Naoise Ó Cairealláin “Móglaí Bap”, Liam Óg Ó Hannaidh “Mo Chara”,  JJ Ó Dochartaigh “Dj Provaí”, Josie Walker, Fionnuala Flaherty, Jessica Reynolds, Adam Best, with Simone Kirby and Michael Fassbender

Synopsis: Explores the birth of Kneecap, a hip and naughty Irish rap group.

Kneecap begins and immediately sets the tone for its audience. Voice-over narration dictates how every Irish story begins the same way. The narration is laid over second-hand footage of bombings committed throughout Ireland. In what amounts to a blatant record scratch, the voice lets us know this isn’t the typical Irish story. Instead, we’re taken to a forest where Naoise (Móglaí Bap) was brought as a baby for a traditional ceremony. The baby and his family are treated to the bright lights of a helicopter breaking up the ceremony, and it’s immediately made clear that Rich Peppiatt’s film is one still inherently interested in the politics of post-Troubles Belfast. If Naoise’s life began with those around him cursing at and flipping off the helicopters looking to impose their traditions on Ireland, the narrator asks the viewer a simple question: “What chance did he have?”

The political urgency and manic energy of Kneecap never stops from that point forward. It’s injected with massive amounts of levity and creativity. All the while, it remains steadfast in its messaging and ideologies. It’s a deeply impressive debut which fires on all cylinders and never stops being wildly entertaining. A major part of the film’s success most certainly relies on the titular trio, which are all portrayed by the actual members of the group. Peppiatt briefly goes over their childhood to set the stage of how the two friends, Naoise and Liam (Mo Chara), met DJ Próvaí and began rapping. By the time the three have met and recorded their first track, Kneecap has set the stage for what the remainder of the film will revolve around. While it never loses its comedic edge, the film becomes all the more stirring in how it captures what makes hip-hop not only special, but important.

Hip-hop is a genre that was born 50 years ago with the very intention to resist the powers that be. It has been, and always will be, an inherently political form of music when it’s at its purest. And both Kneecap the film and Kneecap the trio clearly understand and respect that foundational building block. We see Naoise and Liam as children, having fun with Liam’s father (the always excellent Michael Fassbender). The unreadable stares he delivers are frightening, but there’s a deep seeded pride that remains ever so hidden. It’s a performance with not much screen time, but he delivers all that’s needed, usually through silence. He instructs the duo to watch American Westerns on the television, but from the point-of-view of the Native Americans. This film is intrinsically interested with the notion of anti-propaganda, while also using your voice and mind as a means of empowerment. The film is obviously loads of fun, and for rappers who are turning in their first acting performance, it’s quite impressive. One gets the sense that, even in sequences that are a bit more cliche than others, the raw authenticity they have in their on-screen personas carries the film where it needs to go.

Peppiatt’s script does not stop there when it comes to pulling from real life either. There are countless sequences where police, news reporters, and sometimes both, are openly speaking about and advocating for censorship. It’s deeply reminiscent of anti-rap language against even the most prominent and celebrated rappers of contemporary music, such as Kendrick Lamar. Far too often are artists labeled as the cause of societal issues rather than taking aim at the policies the artists are criticizing in the first place. Admittedly, the group in the film is shown to engage in antics that range from dangerous at worst to highly controversial at best, so it’s not the most apt comparison. But their reasoning for making music primarily in Irish appears to be a noble one. The film even goes so far as to address how indigenous languages around the world are destroyed incredibly often. It may feel like much of Kneecap is a lot of throwing creativity at the wall to see what sticks, but Peppiatt’s belief in saving a dying language is clear.

Finally, Kneecap finds itself very wrapped up in the notion of talent versus timing. In an age where seemingly anybody can become famous through virality, what does it mean anymore? One of the group members asks if it was their talent that got them there, or if it was simply their time? If the fans of the group are any indication, it appears to be their time. Back to hip-hop being a genre that will always be, at its core, political. With a massive rise in younger individuals wanting to stand up and make their voices heard, Kneecap feels as if all that pent-up anxiety and desire has become personified. This is due to the authenticity felt through the very DNA of this film, from the rappers portraying themselves to the way in which Peppiatt captures Belfast, the culture feels represented in a beneficial manner. This will likely be a favorite of the fest to most fans of cinema that remains consistently exciting without sacrificing a ton of substance.

Kneecap celebrated its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section, and is being distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Grade: B+

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