After the plague of quirky comedies from Ireland and Britain several years ago, the mere sight of a cute seaside Irish village in The Boys & Girl From County Clare induces a Pavlovian shudder. And there's reason for concern, too, as two separate vanloads of offbeat musicians hit the road for the annual All Ireland Band Competition. Nothing that follows comes as much of a surprise on any front: The characters are gruff yet lovable, the omnipresent music bursts with distinct regional flavor, and every "i" is dotted in the feel-good conclusion. Yet within these tired conventions, the film's modest charms are ingratiating and sweet, thanks to Colm Meaney's hilariously salty lead performance and a soundtrack that channels the warm spirit of traditional Ceili music, which thrives without any contemporary cachet.
As the Beatles explode out of his adopted city of Liverpool, local businessman Meaney ignores the hype and focuses on the upcoming Ceili competition, where he and his bandmates will square off against his estranged brother, Bernard Hill. Meaney and Hill grew up playing the fiddle together with their father in a tiny seaside cabin, but Meaney left for the big city after a bitter dispute over a woman. Both seek their sweet revenge in the coveted Ceili trophy, and even go so far as to sabotage each other's caravans en route. Meanwhile, the rivalry gets more complicated when the star players from each band, Hill's chief fiddle (Andrea Corr) and Meaney's inventive flutist (Phil Barantini), embark on tentative romance that dredges up painful secrets from the past. At a certain point, the competition becomes the least of everybody's concerns.
Though shameless in measuring Meaney's city-slicker fatuousness against Hill's more soulful small-towner, The Boys & Girl From County Clare generates such strong affection for its characters that this and other clichés are forgivable. The film hardly contains a memorable moment, but it has refreshingly little pretension as well, and the buoyant mood and music allows for plenty of minor pleasures. Director John Irvin, who manufactured scenic blarney with less affecting results in Widows' Peak, doesn't overplay the quirky local color like Waking Ned Devine and its ilk, especially in the relationship between the two brothers, which has the easy rapport of two men who knew each other all too well. Like the movie itself, their familiarity is a comfort.