Strictly speaking, the two scrappy Irish kids in Lance Daly's Kisses aren't homeless, but in every sense that matters, they have only each other for shelter. Kylie and Dylan (played by Kelly O'Neill and Shane Curry, both plucked from Dublin schools and oozing forlorn defiance) live next door to each other in a dreary housing project outside one of the world's most picturesque cities. Home is a spiritual desert aptly filmed in black-and-white, where a Christmas greeting from Dad translates as "I'll smash your fuckin' face in," and where all a mother with bruises of her own can do to protect her child is whisper, "Run."
Run they do, armed with Christmas money and a resolve to find Dylan's older brother, who went missing two years earlier. And as they run, this latter-day Hansel and Gretel — so foul-mouthed and heavily accented that they require subtitles — escape from Loachian neorealism into the junky beauty of an urban fairy tale, with a bold touch of Fellini. As the children hitch a ride on the canal from a kindly immigrant, Daly dribbles in color, his camera picking out a hopeful pink and yellow in Kylie and Dylan's clothing.
By the time the runaways reach Dublin, it's dusk, yet their mood lifts at the prospect of a new habitat teeming with nocturnal life and saturated with a richly dark palette that recalls John Carney's lovely 2006 Irish musical romance, Once. Street buskers come festooned with fairy lights; a beautiful black hooker bestows protective kisses; and Bob Dylan, an unlikely fairy godfather channeled by Stephen Rea, sings the runaways through terrifying encounters with the bogeymen in and around them. Isn't it romantic?
Kisses is far from the first, nor will it be the last, movie to suggest that for a growing army of kids in almost any city, life on the streets may be safer and more exciting, and bring more comfort than home does. Daly shows little mercy for the parents, who, after all, have barely cleared their own traumatized childhoods. But he does understand that children and migrant workers may be the most urgent casualties of a runaway global economy. And he's more aware than most that the romance of the inner city can only be pushed so far before it starts serving a filmmaker's aesthetic more than it does his subject.
If Kisses is filled with a kids'-eye view of fresh experience and freedom — a free slide across an ice rink, a tour of the mall on heel wheels, a breathless race through a topless bar — inevitably, its pleasures give way to violence and danger, and finally a wake-up to a new day stripped of all color. The movie's ending may be less satisfying than that of Slumdog Millionaire — a film you can love for its infectiously wishful exuberance, but never fully believe in — but Kisses is truer to the tragedy of a generation of children whom we have utterly failed. If they're anything like Kylie and Dylan, they'll be back to let us know.