Dondo’s dad is dead. That’s one of the first things we learn in writer-director Johnny Barrington’s spry, offbeat debut feature “Silent Roar” — this year’s Edinburgh fest opener. This information is delivered by Paddy the Priest, a preacher with shrewd eyes and wild hair. Standing on the doorstep, addressing an audience of the late fisherman’s widow and teenage son, Paddy (Mark Lockyer, excellent in a small but potent role) intones, “It must be coming up a year now since he was taken by the waves. Fishing on the Sabbath as he was, I hear.” Technically, Dondo’s dad is missing at sea, but despite the atmosphere of religious conviction that hangs over this small Scottish island community, nobody has much faith in the possibility of his survival.
Dondo, however, is a dreamer. His father’s fate hasn’t quenched his thirst for the ocean. A keen surfer with a light and likeable optimism about him, he appears to derive a kind of spiritual satisfaction from riding the waves. Played with quiet zest by Louis McCartney, Dondo is the polar opposite of his sparky, confrontational schoolmate Sas (Ella Lily Hyland): When a teacher asks her not to wear noisy metal bangles during the hush of an exam, she responds by staring the man down and loudly asking, “Are you asking me to remove an item of clothing?” Hyland brims with punkish “The Wild One” energy — it’s a treat to watch her rebelling against whatever they’ve got.
Building on the promise of his short films “Trout” and “Tumult,” both of which bowed at Sundance, one of Barrington’s trump cards here as a filmmaker is his ability to build a vivid sense of place around these characters. It probably helps that he grew up on Skye, an island not dissimilar to Lewis, where “Silent Roar” is set. Barrington avoids the picture-postcard approach of a tourist — difficult, since these remote Scottish landscapes do look like the kind of thing you’d find in a pretty souvenir calendar. Instead, he focuses on how the elements have shaped the bones of the place: the ocean carving out sea caves, the wind whistling over open spaces, ensuring only the hardiest plant life will make it. Religion clings hard to such remote locations, winding its way into deep crevices like a hardy clifftop creeper. The dark T-shaped telegraph poles loom over the landscape like crucifixes.
Exceptional craft contributions are key to this substantial sense of atmosphere. Shooting on 16mm, DP Ruben Woodin Dechamps locates a lovely softness in compositions that could feel quite forbidding, while stunning surfing and underwater footage by Jon Frank recalls the work of celebrated surfer and surfing-POV filmmaker George Greenough. Barrington, who worked as a ship’s photographer for a couple of years before studying at the Glasgow School of Art, clearly understands how central the image-making would be to realizing a potentially slight narrative.
Despite the constraints of shooting on 16mm, there’s an airy lightness of touch to all this, which belies how often we’ve seen some of the film’s themes of self-discovery and teenage identity before. Coming-of-age films on the festival circuit can feel ten-a-penny, to the point that you wonder whether there are any debut directors out there at all who don’t want to make semi-autobiographical films about young people filtered through aspects of their own identity or upbringing. But the good ones make it count, and this spiritual but earthy, peculiar but poetic debut is one of the good ones.