A young child getting wrapped up in mystical bullshit is one of the most rewarding movie genres,
especially when it’s directed by a great director. Stories about children who meet the
unexplained are a great way to tell stories about the uncertainty of growing up from childhood to
adulthood, including E.T. and Spirited Away. These themes can often feel heavy-handed, but
they are more relatable when they are portrayed in realistic terms. Science fiction and fantasy
provide a new way to make these themes feel fresh and modern.
This subgenre has a more amazing subgenre: movies that feature selkies.
A selkie in Irish folklore is a seal that transforms into a person. Folklore traditions all over the
globe have a tradition of people who can transform into animals. But what makes the selkie
story such a great vehicle for telling coming-of-age stories? Its inherent poignance. Many stories
depict a selkie who transforms into a human and lives on the land for many years, having loved
and had children. But the sea always calls them. They will eventually listen to that call and
return home, making their loved ones happy for their new happiness in the waves.
John Sayles’s Roan Inish is a 1994 live-action film about a girl who searches for her brother.
Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea is an animated 2014 film about the discovery by a boy his
younger sister, who is a selkie, centers on the myth. The 2009 film Ondine also featured selkies. It doesn’t focus on children coming to terms with their maturation and/or death, so it
doesn’t count. Moore is an Irish-American who lives and works in Ireland. Sayles is
Irish-American. Their interest in the selkie tale seems almost as much to be about their personal
identities as it is to create a film around.
Roan Inish was by far the most surprising of the two films. American independent film legend
Sayles is best known for his 1980 drama “old friends reunite”, Matewan (1987 labor union
historical drama), and Lone Star (1996 Western). Although all of these films are great in different
ways, you won’t be able to look at them and say, “I should see this with my child.” Roan Inish,
however, is a wonderful movie to watch with children who like something a little more
contemplative than the usual kid’s fare.
Fiona is a young girl who moves to Ireland with her grandparents in the wake of World War II.
Fiona’s family legend states that Fiona is descended from selkies and that her younger brother,
who was believed to be dead, was actually swept to sea. He is now being raised by seals.
Fiona’s family lived on the mysterious island of Roan Inish where they might be hiding their
secrets. Fiona embarks on a project to restore old family cottages on Roan Inish that are now in
disrepair. She also learns about her brother’s disappearance and other family grievances.
The wonderful Jeni Courtney plays Fiona. She is an actor who has only made two feature films
and was chosen after Sayles auditioned over 1,000 actors. The film’s strength lies in how she
subtly and beautifully portrays the moment in childhood when your family history goes beyond
your birth date. You begin to understand the deeper emotions that may be bubbling up in your
grandparents and parents. Sayles’s ability to ground these truths in quiet, melancholic times
between grandparents and grandchildren creates something truly moving.
Song of the Sea also deals with a relationship between siblings. However, in this instance, Ben,
the older brother, is trying to keep Saoirse from leaving to join the seals. Saoirse and Ben’s
mother vanished the night Saoirse was born. This provides a rich metaphor. This movie can be
read as a story about a child who grieves his mother and blames her younger sibling for her
death during childbirth.
You could also read it as a movie about the girl who can transform into a seal. Conor, Ben’s
widower father, is raising Ben and Saoirse in a lighthouse on the Irish coast. Saoirse finds a
strange coat in her closet early in the film. She puts the coat on at the beach and it transforms
into a seal. Conor captures her and takes the coat. He locks it in a trunk and tosses it into the
ocean. He then moves his children to a faraway city for good measure.
This is only the beginning of the movie. The story continues on to an eerie Halloween night
when Ben and Saoirse are led by spirits to discover the truth about their mom’s fate. There are
also lots of adorable animated seals.
Song of the Sea, along with The Secret of Kells (2008) and Wolfwalkers (2018) are the other
films in Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy”. While all three films are excellent, I have a special place
in my heart for Song of the Sea. This is simply because it beautifully evokes the sadness of the selkie myth. The film’s structure is like a sob that the characters hold back. This finally breaks
down as the film reaches its graceful, elegiac conclusion.
Both films are driven by sadness, in fact, since the selkie myth is about grief and the
unexplainable nature of death. Children have lived in a world that saw their parents and loved
ones disappear suddenly for most of human history. Roan Inish_s Fiona and Song_’s Ben are
unable to adjust to this reality. Both films force the children to face a reality that many children
realize before they reach adolescence: People you love will die one day.
However, the selkie myth allows you to have one more chance to connect. This could lead to a
happy ending or just one last chance for you to say goodbye. You can find seals out in the
ocean, and you can enjoy the possibility that you might see someone you lost or loved.
The Secret of Roan Inish is available to stream for free (with ads) on a number of platforms,