The Drummer And The Keeper

Ireland (2017) Dir. Nick Kelly

As someone diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome a few years ago I have become very curious about films and TV dealing with people on the Autism Spectrum, as it is actually a difficult condition to portray correctly not to mention saying credible and authentic. This effort from Ireland doubles its hardship by also featuring a character who is bipolar, another mental health issue that requires some sensitivity in its representation.

It is the titular drummer, Gabriel (Dermot Murphy) who is bipolar, struggling to get over his mother’s suicide by indulging in the usual rock’n’roll excesses. After an intervention by bandmates Toss (Peter Coonan) and Pearse (Charlie Kelly) and sister Alice (Aoibhinn McGinnity), Gabriel is put on medication by his psychologist Dr. Flahavan (Annie Ryan) and sent to a help programme.

Gabriel arrives for football practice at St Cosmo’s, a home for youths with mental health issues, and immediately collides with 17 year-old Aspie goalkeeper Christopher (Jacob McCarthy). Gabriel later apologies and the pair become unlikely friends, extending to Christopher becoming the roadie for Gabriel’s band, but things are jeopardised when the band get a manager who suggests they get a new drummer.

To be honest, when this film ended I felt like a watched a regular odd couple tale with two people who just happened to have mental health issues, with little to suggest this was designed to enlighten people about bipolar and Autism. This is a surprise as writer-director Nick Kelly apparently has a son on the spectrum and an Autism support crowd acted as consultants on the film.

Perhaps I am being overcritical and picky – it’s what we Aspies are like apparently – but there was more I recognised in Gabriel than in Christopher, down to the lazy stereotype employed so people can easily identify him as Autistic. Even if you’re not an expert, you know what they are: being obsessed with the minutiae of a given subject, takes everything literally, talks in a monotone voice, is protective of his personal space…  

At one point Christopher even explains to Gabriel that one of his fellow residents in the home has “real” Autism as Asperger’s is “just” on the spectrum, again something I didn’t expect to hear in a script coming from the parent of an Autistic child. Along with other residents including a shy singer who wraps herself up in the curtains and the obligatory emo, this is a check list of what a parody of mental health patients would look like.

Luckily, Gabriel is “only” bipolar so his problems stem from his mother losing her battle with the same disorder, her cremation being a trigger for Gabriel developing pyromaniac tendencies. In a similarly misleading narrative for this cause, Gabriel is depicted as being too much of a loose cannon when having one of his psychotic episodes then later, too chilled out for the band when his medication stabilises his moods – another misnomer that needs to be addressed seriously and not just speculatively for the sake of drama.

Yes, it brings about a change in Gabriel as he learns to accept Christopher and his quirky ways and he begins to enjoy life again, this new found lucidity framing Gabriel as the lone voice of reason when he learns that Christopher’s mother Naomi (Ally Ni Chiarain) and boorish step-father Jeremy (Phelim Drew) aren’t being on the level with him about his living arrangement because they see him as a liability.

Unfortunately, when Gabriel drops the meds so he can be the wild drummer again, he reverts back to the arsehole he was at the start, sabotaging everything he built up in one foul swoop because that is apparently how coming off medication works. It really is a shame that this film takes such a reductive approach to its key themes when it could have achieved more by exploring them with a bit more compassion and understanding.

However, the actual story being told, that of the unlikely friendship, is done so with warmth and gentle humour making this pairing somewhat agreeable. There are the inevitable baby steps taken where toes are trodden on as the rules and boundaries are established but a genuine affection, at least on Gabriel’s part as he is able to recognise it more easily, is eventually generated.

Elsewhere there is a positive and thoughtful message imparted, even if it is clumsily handled, and that is labels with stigmas attached to them, like bipolar and Autism shouldn’t be met with compartmentalisation and retraction, instead we should take the time to learn and understand them leading to integration in society based on what they can contribute and not what they can’t.

A former musician and director of commercials, Kelly’s leap to feature films is vibrant and natural. He is able to represent his erstwhile profession with some authenticity, both good and bad, while the presentation and technical specs are quite high for its modest budget. The script does tend to get a little hokey and the third act, whilst heart warming and quite astute in its observation, is a fantasy too far.    

The flaws of the main characterisations fortunately fail to diminish the impressive performances of the two leads. In his debut role, Jacob McCarthy does well handling the nuances of Christopher’s demanding neurological traits, almost akin to a straight man to Dermot Murphy’s intense and brooding Gabriel. His gamine appearance and tousled curly hair belie the warm troubled human that lurks beneath this unruly exterior.    

Some of the residents in the care home were apparently made up of genuinely autistic people but were never featured enough to be recognised as such or make an impact. The remainder of the support cast did a capable job but their characters were equally thinly sketched tropes and little more than narrative ballast.

I really wanted The Drummer And The Keeper to be a breakthrough film in portraying Autism with some dignity and credibility, but instead got a well-intended if conventional drama.