Silent Roar: a sincere, playful exploration of youth, grief and faith

The film’s tone may change like a sea wind, but there’s much to admire in writer/director Johnny Barrington’s story of a teenage surfer struggling to cope after the loss of his father.

25 August 2023

By Tim Hayes

Silent Roar (2023)
Sight and Sound
  •  Reviewed from the 2023 Edinburgh International Film Festival

Enough young people process grief at the loss of a parent in films to constitute a genre, often with a dive into dour urban strife; but Silent Roar strikes out into the chilly waters around the Isle of Lewis under the big sky of the Outer Hebrides, carrying with it a streak of anti-realism that starts off in jokey mood before becoming more heated. 

Dondo (Louis McCartney), whose love of ocean surfing and its freedom counterbalances his struggles in the classroom, lost his father Willy (Tip Cullen) to a boating accident, although he keeps seeing the dead man off in the distance. Continually returning to the sea in search of both his dad and closure, Dondo finds stranger things instead: three surfing spiritual guides who may or may not actually be there, along with visions of Jesus (Chinenye Ezeudu) as a genial Black woman from Switzerland holding a guinea pig. The music by Hannah Peel is no pensive underscore but bold brass cycles, pulsing with the rhythms of time and the tide.

Or possibly the horns of the Rapture. Christianity, a fact of life for the older generation in Dondo’s community, comes to increasingly occupy his mind. It occupies writer/director Johnny Barrington too, who finds religious symbolism contesting the landscape with other, older, relics. The bus stop where Dondo and his school friend, the aptly named Sas (a feisty Ella Lily Hyland), chat is a cruciform; but Sas’s familial home is guarded by an ancient standing stone, a phallic menhir reflecting some carnal history within the family. The local church is in disrepair, reopened under new pastor Paddy (Mark Lockyer, veering towards The Fast Show territory), although a concrete mixer spins constantly outside like a Tibetan prayer wheel. Paddy spots in Dondo a spark of faith to be kindled and gets further there than he does with Sas, who is more inclined to wistfully seek the divine in Jimi Hendrix than Jesus. Her life trajectory and exam results seem to be leading inexorably away to the material world, to university, to England.

Producer Christopher Young had a hand in The Inbetweeners films, which could be connected to Silent Roar’s detour into horny teenage onanism; but the film gets less comedic as it surfs towards a last act of multiple religious signifiers, including animal offerings, fire, water, a thunderbolt, and resurrection. Although the gap between these tonal pillars yawns wide, the film is fully sincere about its two young characters and unsure that religious faith suits them at all. They look to each other instead, and to the sea where other powers lurk.

Other things to explore