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“Kneecap”: Sex, Drugs, and Irish Rap

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 18: (L–R) Rich Peppiatt, Jessica Reynolds, Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh, JJ Ó Dochartaigh, Naoise Ó Cairealláin, Simone Kirby, and Fionnuala Flaherty attend the 2024 Sundance Film Festival “Kneecap” premiere at Prospector Square Theatre on January 18, 2024, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Stephen Greathouse/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Lucy Spicer

Does anybody have any drugs?” Naoise Ó Cairealláin asks the audience at the Q&A following the premiere of Kneecap at Prospector Square Theatre, in Park City, Utah, on January 18.

“Cheap,” adds Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh.

“That’ll be a lobby answer,” says Ash Hoyle, the Sundance Film Festival programmer leading the Q&A.

The interaction has the cadence of a joke, but is it really? It’s an appropriate vibe for a  conversation following a semi-autobiographical film that will oftentimes leave the viewer asking, “Did that actually happen?” But that’s all part of the charm with Kneecap, screening in the NEXT section of the 2024 Festival (and winner of this year’s Audience Award: NEXT).

The three-person rap group play themselves in this high-energy origin story, in which a seemingly mild-mannered teacher (JJ Ó Dochartaigh) encourages two young drug dealers (Ó Cairealláin and Óg Ó hAnnaidh) to channel their rage against British imperialism in a post-Troubles Belfast by recording some rap tracks — in Irish, of course. Ó Dochartaigh dons an Irish flag balaclava to join them onstage, and Kneecap was born. 

The trio contend with some inevitable difficulties as they gain popularity, including scuffles with the RRAD (Radical Republicans Against Drugs), Óg Ó hAnnaidh’s regular hookups with the Protestant Georgia (Jessica Reynolds), and the fact that Ó Cairealláin has to pretend his father (played by Michael Fassbender) is dead to evade police capture.

A film still from Kneecap. The three members of hip-hop trio Kneecap walk up the stairs in blue-tinted lighting.

It’s a wild, ketamine-laced ride from start to finish, punctuated by songs, touches of animation, and voiceover narration by Óg Ó hAnnaidh. It’s hard to believe the trio had never acted before this film. “It was always the plan that they were gonna play themselves, but obviously during the process of trying to get the film made, the question kept coming up: Can they act?” says Rich Peppiatt, the film’s writer-director, at the Q&A. “And I was like, ‘Fucking right, they can act! They’re brilliant actors, I’ve seen them, they’re great!’ And I had no idea.”

Peppiatt may have been overconfident initially. “I remember the first time we sat down for an acting lesson. It weren’t great, was it, lads? It was a bit of a struggle, and I thought, are we in trouble here? But Kieran [Lagan] really put together a fantastic acting course, and week by week, it blossomed.”

Kneecap’s debut acting gig is bolstered by a supporting cast who were clearly meant to be part of the film. “At my first audition, I was severely hungover,” admits Fionnuala Flaherty, who plays Ó Dochartaigh’s significant other in the film. She had been at an Irish language festival the day before. 

I hadn’t worked in a year and half, so I thought I’d better fuckin take this one,” replies Reynolds amid audience laughter when asked what drew her to the role of Georgia. She continues sincerely, “Belfast roles don’t exist, you know what I mean? They never come along. This is the first time I’ve seen our city represented in such an authentic way. It’s just everything to me, and I’m sure to all the people from there.”

To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.