This pitch-perfect foray into a young man's agonizing adolescence is made vivid by the small details of his daily life. Living at home with a devout Catholic mother, this young man on the path toward manhood finds 1960's Belfast a tough arena, especially when rigid Catholic school ethics stand sentinel over natural self-expression.
Strict Irish priests are rigorous in their training of young minds, with liberal application of corporal punishment coupled with the occasional spiritual retreat, three days of silence, prayer and soul-searching. The most effective and lasting discipline is mental: a constant reinforcement of the nature of sin, especially as entertained in lascivious minds, where chastity is threatened by worldly corruption. Martin Brennan and his friends survive just such an environment, their sexuality a driving force as they bond in friendship defined by four-letter words and innuendo. Driven by hormones, conscience runs a close second, carefully prepared by years of sermons.
To his shame, Brennan is repeating his last year of high school before seeking employment. Kavanagh, a star basketball player, is Martin's best pal and co-conspirator. When the more sophisticated Blaise Foley, a new student, boards at their school, the paradigm changes. The three boys form a lopsided triumvirate where Blaise challenges Martin to question everything he has ever been taught by the priests. Martin and Kavanagh's natural hubris and enthusiasm, as well as Blaise's arrogance, is tempered by the free-floating anxiety common to boys on the verge of manhood.
The iconoclastic Blaise is a perfect foil to the more conscientious day students as he continues pricking holes in their beliefs and expectations. It is Blaise who suggests a devious scheme for passing the exams critical to each young man's future. Blaise is an antagonist whose best work is done while skating on the thin edge of risk, a practiced con artist with a deep distrust of conformity. But the ill-conceived interference of a disciplinarian begins a cycle of violence that leaves one boy fighting for his life and shocks the others into adulthood overnight. This injudicious event changes the course of their lives.
There is a notable scene where Brennan loses his virginity, which perfectly captures the tortuous journey from exploration to intimacy. Himself unaware of his charms, Brennan is an attractive young man to the opposite sex; his first foray into sexual misadventure is tender and touching. MacLaverty skillfully portrays the difficult terrain of youthful maturity, when young boys perform age-old rituals that mark such milestones.
In a familiar and humorous rendition, MacLaverty's Martin Brennan, carefully tended by a religious mother who surrounds her son with moral values, is the essence of a boy's transition into the next phase of life, his struggles proscribed by universal experience, successfully navigating his path towards an uncharted future.