Eddie and Amber are similar in a lot of ways. They’re both counting down the days until they can leave their small hometown in Ireland behind, they’re both social outcasts, and they’re both harboring a pretty big secret. Dating Amber is the story of a friendship between two queer teenagers growing up in a conservative Irish village in 1995, then not exactly a poster child for LGBTQ acceptance. It provides an emotionally honest look at two teenagers learning where and when and how they can be themselves, and blossoming because of the strength they find in one another. It’s appropriately quirky and lowkey, as befits its status as an Irish indie dramedy (directed by David Freyne, best known for his zombie drama The Cured), but its candor and sincerity combined with two compelling performances from its leads allow it to punch above its weight class.

Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) is deeply closeted, convinced that he can live a fulfilling heterosexual life through sheer force of will. He’s not so much terrified that people will found out that he’s gay as he is in denial about his sexuality in general. Amber (Lola Petticrew), on the other hand, is a fearlessly upfront lesbian who seems largely unperturbed by speculation about her sexuality, more annoyed than horrified. She has her eye on the prize, and is just counting down the days until she can escape her oppressively small hometown. But in the meantime, it’s hard to ignore the fact that presenting as straight would make both of their lives a lot easier; at the very least, it would get their bullying classmates off their backs. So Amber comes up with the plan that will solve all of their problems: they’ll pretend to be dating each other.

The pretend relationship trope is a staple of the coming-of-age genre, but Dating Amber puts a new spin on it by having their fake romance serve as a gateway to a really moving friendship. Because as much as Eddie refuses to acknowledge it, they’re the only people they know who can understand what the other is going through. Hiding who you are to the entire world is a tremendous burden, and watching them learn how to let their guard down a little bit with each other is incredible. They stand on the precipice of seemingly endless possibilities, an intoxicating future lying before them of living an open life with no secrets.

When they sneak away into a nearby city for a night at a gay bar, it’s as though a dam bursts. They can breathe freely for the first time in their lives. For Amber, it’s a bit of fun, a chance to meet a pretty girl and glimpse what her future will be like once she leaves home and moves to an exciting new city free of the constraints of her provincial life. But for Eddie, it’s a transformative, healing experience. His sexuality has always been intensely private and internalized: the idea that there were other men out there like him feels almost as though it was an abstract concept. And then actually seeing them in person, happy and confident and living their lives on their own terms, is a watershed moment. It puts him at a crossroads: he can either embrace who he is, or he can double down and pretend to be who he is not.

Eddie does some pretty awful things here, and he treats Amber abominably. But Dating Amber works in part because of O’Shea’s performance, because you can see how terrified and on alert he’s been his entire life; he’s so fragile that the wrong word or glance threatens to break him into a million pieces. So we can forgive him his flaws, his tendency to lash out at the wrong people, because it’s so easy to understand what he’s going through.

Dating Amber is a refreshingly earnest take on the LGBTQ coming-of-age story. The genuine friendship that develops between Amber and Eddie is a joy to watch, and it’s incredibly moving to see them learn from one another and become more confident in themselves. Eddie’s character arc in particular showcases a really honest form of denial that will undoubtedly speak to many viewers. It’s the sort of film that generates such goodwill from the audience towards its characters that we can’t help but want to see how these two ended up, because we’ve become so invested in their stories. That type of emotional connection is rarer than it seems, and for that reason alone, Dating Amber is a delight.

Rating: ★★★★

Dating Amber is available on Amazon Prime in the UK and VOD in the US.