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Two Good Things: Sad kids’ movies about magical seals

Why the Irish legend of the selkie endures in cinematic form.

Fiona from the movie The Secret of Roan Inish sits in a rowboat out at sea, and Saoirse from Song of the Sea stands on a rock, surrounded by seals.
The Secret of Roan Inish (left) and Song of the Sea both offer takes on the Irish selkie legend.
The Samuel Goldwyn Company/GKIDS
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

There are few movie genres as frequently rewarding as “a young child gets wrapped up in some mystical bullshit,” especially when handled by a great director. From E.T. to Spirited Away to Pan’s Labyrinth to the recent Petite Maman, stories about kids who encounter the unexplained seem like a foolproof way to tell stories about the uncertain transition from childhood to adulthood. The same coming-of-age beats that can feel heavy-handed in a more realistic treatment of these themes often feel refreshing and new when cloaked in the metaphors that fantasy or science fiction provide.

There’s an even more consistently amazing subgenre within this subgenre: movies about selkies.

In Irish folklore, a selkie is a seal who turns into a person and vice versa. People who can metamorphose into animals are a constant of folklore traditions around the world, but what makes the selkie tale such a good vehicle for coming-of-age stories is its inherent poignance. In many stories, the selkie may change into human form and spend many years on land, even falling in love and having children, but always, the sea will call to them. One day, finally, they will heed that call and return, leaving their loved ones sad to have lost them, but glad for their renewed happiness in the waves.

The myth lives at the center of John Sayles’s The Secret of Roan Inish, a live-action 1994 film about a young girl searching for her long-lost brother, and Tomm Moore’s Song of the Sea, an animated 2014 film about a boy who discovers that his younger sister is a selkie. (The 2009 film Ondine also features selkies. However, it’s not about children coming to terms with their maturation and/or mortality, so it doesn’t count.) Moore lives and works in Ireland, and Sayles is Irish-American, so their interest in the selkie legend seems almost as much an exploration of their own identities as it is a good yarn to build a movie around.

Roan Inish is by far the more unexpected of the two films. Sayles is a titan of American independent film, best known for movies like the 1980 “old friends reunite” drama Return of the Secaucus 7, the 1987 labor union historical drama Matewan, and a 1996 Western, Lone Star. All of those films are varying degrees of great, but you wouldn’t look at any of them and think, “I should watch this with my kid.” Yet Roan Inish is a great movie to watch with a child who enjoys something slightly more contemplative than the usual kids’ fare.

The film follows Fiona, a girl who goes to live with her grandparents on the coast of Ireland in the immediate wake of World War II. It’s family legend that Fiona’s ancestry includes selkies and that her younger brother, thought to be dead, was actually swept away to sea where he is currently being raised by seals. The secrets might reside on the mysterious isle of Roan Inish, where Fiona’s family used to live. As Fiona begins a project of refurbishing old family cottages on Roan Inish that have fallen into ruin, she also learns more about the still open wound of her brother’s disappearance, as well as other family sorrows.

Fiona is played by the wonderful Jeni Courtney, an actor who made only two feature films and who won the role after Sayles auditioned 1,000 actors for the part. What makes the film work is how subtly and perfectly she plays the moment in childhood when you start to realize that your family’s history extends beyond the moment of your birth and begin to understand all of the deeper emotions that threaten to well up in your parents and grandparents. Sayles’s skill at grounding those truths in quiet, melancholic moments between grandparent and grandchild creates something truly moving.

Song of the Sea is also about a relationship between siblings, though in this case, older brother Ben is trying to keep his younger sister, Saoirse, from running off to join the seals. Ben and Saoirse’s mother disappeared the same night Saoirse was born, which provides a rich undercurrent of metaphor. You can easily read this movie as being about a child who misses his mother blaming his younger sibling for the mother’s death in childbirth.

Or you could read it as a movie about a girl who can turn into a seal. Ben and Saoirse are being raised by their widower father, Conor, in a lighthouse along the Irish coast. Early in the film, Saoirse discovers a strange coat locked away in a closet. When she puts it on by the seashore, she turns into a seal and is able to frolic and play with the other seals. When Conor catches her, however, he takes the coat, locks it in a trunk, and throws it into the sea. Then, for good measure, he moves his kids to the city far away.

And that’s just the first third of the movie. The rest of the story unspools on an eerie Halloween night when the spirits lead Ben and Saoirse closer and closer to the truth about what happened to their mom (and also a bunch of super cute animated seals).

Song of the Sea is the second film in Moore’s “Irish folklore trilogy,” alongside The Secret of Kells (2009) and Wolfwalkers (2020). All three films are terrific, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Song of the Sea, simply because of how beautifully it evokes the sadness at the heart of the selkie myth. The structure of the film is like a sob the characters are holding back, which finally releases as the film reaches a graceful, elegiac climax.

That sadness drives both films, really, because the selkie myth has always been about grief and the unexplainable nature of death. For most of human history, children have had to grow up in a world where their parents or other loved ones might just suddenly be gone. Neither Song’s Ben nor Roan Inish’s Fiona can quite adjust to that reality. The story of both films forces the two kids to confront something many children begin to realize just before adolescence: The people you love are going to die someday.

The selkie myth, however, allows for one last chance to reconnect, for a second chance that might result in a happy ending or might just result in getting one last chance to say goodbye. Somewhere out there in the sea, seals are playing, and if you can take joy in that, you can hope that someone you loved and lost might be out there, too, just beyond the waves.

The Secret of Roan Inish is available to stream for free (with ads) on a number of platforms, including Tubi, Pluto TV, and YouTube. You can also digitally purchase or rent it on all major platforms. Song of the Sea is available for digital purchase and rental on all major platforms. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.

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