Johnny Barrington‘s oblique, elemental drama is a festival opener that shows Scotland at its most ruggedly beautiful and monolithic. Rich in character and visual splendour, it’s a fine debut that may indulge in a few unsatisfying plot elements, but succeeds over through its fascinating protagonists and appealing performances.

Dondo (Louis McCartney) is a young surfer on the Isle of Lewis who is struggling to cope with the loss of his father at sea the year before. Returning to school after a long period of absence, he forms a strong bond with classmate Sas (Ella Lily Hyland), and also begins something of a spiritual awakening under the ambiguous guidance of the new pastor (Mark Lockyer), accompanied by increasingly vivid waking hallucinations. Is his new faith a way of processing his grief or simply souring his grief into something dangerous?

Barrington and his two leads bring their characters to life through the build up of small details. For example, Sas tries to dilute her scholastic excellence through tiny acts of rebellion and an earthy fondness for vulgarity, and so keen is Dondo to get into the surf that he can’t even wait to get home to change; instead he has a little makeshift bothy set up by the shore. Despite the two not being obvious playmates – she tall, comparatively worldly, and striking, he quite diminutive, naturally solitary, and considered odd even prior to his father’s passing – the chemistry between the actors seals the bond authentically, even if the hints of a potential romance never quite convince.

It’s fairly clear that Dondo is suffering from some form of mental illness, possibly as a reaction to being firmly locked in the denial stage of grief. Yet the spiritual visions are rooted entirely in his perspective, and the sinister minister seems to have him pegged as some kind of holy innocent. Yet Barrington and cinematographer Ruben Woodin Dechamps shoot both the surfing and church scenes with the same sense of awe and fascination, both activities in which humanity tries to grasp for their place in something much bigger than them. The film by extension appears to have, if not an approving overall picture of the religion depicted, then at least a sympathy for the myriad ways in which it can be expressed; even if both of Dondo’s churches – the chapel and the sea – may prove his undoing.

What Silent Roar does is blend sex, death, and religion into a perfect storm in Dondo’s confused head, which can lead to some very funny moments, but also into worrying territory as his visions get more intense; the relative benignity of three apparently spectral surfer philosophers giving way to frequent visitations from Jesus in the guise of a black, Swiss woman. McCartney does amazingly well with this difficult role, embodying the awkwardness and naivety of a holy fool with an inherent sweetness expressed through minimal dialogue but hugely expressive body language; a fine achievement for a relative newcomer.

In fact, Silent Roar is a fine achievement for all involved. While its relatively straightforward narrative gets overly complicated through little side plots – such as an old photo in a Bible of a young woman playfully flashing her breasts – and the mystic imagery is layered on to perhaps mask the simple coming-of-age story at its heart, it’s a potent folk film with a phenomenal sense of place and community. A terrific metaphysical opener for the resurrected film festival.

Silent Roar screen as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023