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‘Rory O’Shea’ wears its heart on its sleeve

Tale of two disabled friends who decide to strike out on their own
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some of the trappings may be fresh, but “Rory O’Shea Was Here” is a familiar story, one whose themes of triumph over physical infirmity will feel predictable and commonplace to most viewers.

What saves the film from a fatal dose of the same-old same-olds are energetic performances from James McAvoy as the title character, a wheelchair-user with muscular dystrophy, Steven Robertson as a cerebral-palsy patient and Romola Garai as the spirited home-care aide they hire when they strike out on their own.

Scottish actor McAvoy, whose film credits include “Wimbledon,” “Bright Young Things” and the upcoming “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” is the real standout.

Playing a character immobile from the neck down save for the use of two fingers, McAvoy still conveys the sense of someone who’s a dynamo of inner motion. Booming his lines with Zorba-the-Greek vigor, McAvoy injects great heart, humor and eventually pathos into a story that unfolds with cliched conventionality.

The film is based on a story by Christian O’Reilly, who had worked at an assisted-living center in Ireland where he encountered a man with cerebral palsy who sought grants for home aide that would allow him to live on his own. Screenwriter Jeffrey Caine added the movie’s “buddy” element.

The story opens at a Dublin residential-care center where Michael Connolly (Robertson), who uses a motorized wheelchair, lives an isolated life because of cerebral palsy.

Michael’s speech is slurred to the point where almost no one understands a thing he says, and his days are filled with the frustration of talking into a void as attendants bathe him, brush his teeth and help him in and out of bed.

Then McAvoy’s rascally Rory O’Shea arrives, a comic rebel bellowing against the ministrations of the center’s staff and scheming to get money for his own apartment and a home-care helper. His keen ear allows him to comprehend Michael’s speech, and an unlikely friendship forms between the outrageous Rory and the previously complacent Michael.

Rory’s irresponsible railings and subversive actions — which include fleecing money from the center’s charitable collection till to go on a pub bender — brand him an unfit candidate for grant money to live on his own. But with Rory’s help, Michael wins a personal-assistance grant and takes his pal along, the two renting a flat and persuading the inexperienced but compassionate Siobhan (Garai) to take on the job as home-care aide.

From here, pretty much everything you might expect happens. There’s nothing disabled about Rory and Michael’s sense of desire, so both cope with pangs of longing over the beautiful Siobhan. The film serves up the requisite dose of inspiration as Rory and Michael build a life and forge a friendship that eases them out of their long-standing loners’ existence.

And the inevitable dramatic turns that arise threaten to overrun the film with gooey sentiment.

Yet director Damien O’Donnell (“East Is East”) generally keeps “Rory O’Shea Was Here” from spinning too far into maudlin movie-of-the-week territory.

O’Donnell’s more interested in telling the story of friends who happen to be in wheelchairs rather than wheelchair-users who happen to become friends. It’s a subtle difference, but one that makes Rory and friends come across as people first, disabled people second.