Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic candor, profanity, underage smoking and other questionable teen behavior
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.29.16
I’m in love.
Much the way the young star of this indie charmer worships the mysterious girl who lives across the street from his school, I adore the filmmaking chops of Irish writer/director John Carney.
He came to our attention Stateside with 2007’s endearing Once, and its music-laden saga of a Dublin busker and Czech immigrant who meet and then bond over their shared love of songwriting and performing. Stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová fell in love during production, and it showed; nothing could have been sweeter than their Academy Awards performance of the film’s signature tune, “Falling Slowly,” which deservedly galloped home with an Oscar.
Carney detoured with a couple of less successful projects before returning to the music world with 2013’s equally appealing Begin Again, which found washed up, Manhattan-based music exec Mark Ruffalo embracing one last career shot by encouraging the efforts of fledgling singer/songwriter Keira Knightley. As with Once, the action unfolds against a backdrop of catchy, radio-ready new songs: another instant soundtrack hit for delighted fans.
Pleasant as it was, though, a certain something was missing from Begin Again: something that has become obvious with the arrival of Sing Street. As a writer, Carney clearly has the most fun exploring his Irish roots; this new film’s hard-scrabble, working-class Dublin setting affords a rich tapestry of young angst and earthy ensemble dynamics.
Carney sets his story in the 1980s, as a bleak employment depression sends ferryloads of young Irish citizens to London, in the (often vain) hope of landing a steady paycheck. Against this backdrop, 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) finds life at home increasingly distressing. Parents Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) are heading for a messy divorce, heedless of the impact the process is having on Conor, his sister Ann (Kelly Thornton) and their older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor).
Financial stress contributes to the trauma, and one immediate change affects Conor personally. To save money, he’s moved from his posh Jesuit private school to an inner-city comprehensive: Synge Street School, laden with cigarette-smoking bullies barely kept under control by mostly ineffectual priests. The one exception is the smugly authoritarian Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley), a tyrannical monster who takes pleasure in humiliating his students.
Barely into his first day, Conor runs afoul of both Brother Baxter and the hulking Barry (Ian Kenny), a vicious older student likely passed from one grade to the next, just so his previous instructors can get rid of him.
The one ray of sunshine is the diminutive Darren (Ben Carolan), a budding entrepreneur with the adaptive instincts of an underdog survivor. Glancing across the street, Conor also spots a mysterious young woman dressed, made up and coifed to über-cool perfection. She seems a vision out of the Duran Duran rock video that Conor and Brendan watched the previous evening, on TV’s Top of the Pops.
She never talks to anybody, Darren says dismissively, so of course Conor charges across the street and does his best to chat her up.
Raphina (Lucy Boynton), clearly amused, tolerates this interruption. She intends to become a model, she says proudly; it’s merely a matter of getting her portfolio into the proper hands. Well, Conor replies, in that case you definitely should be in the rock video that my band is making. Her eyebrows lift: You have a band? But of course, he smiles.
And walks away with her phone number.
Darren, impressed despite himself, nonetheless pounces on the key issue: Do you have a band?
“No,” Conor answers, “but I’m going to get one.”
And how, I ask, can you resist a set-up like that?
What comes next is as hilariously enchanting as any number of “music tryout” sagas dating back to when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney first decided to “put on a show” (although director Alan Parker’s The Commitments, in 1991, is the most obvious spiritual predecessor). Naturally, the motley crew Conor and Darren eventually gathers comprises many of their school’s other obvious misfits.
First up is Eamon (Mark McKenna), a bespectacled lad with an odd fondness for rabbits — they run rampant in his bedroom — who possesses diverse instrumental chops, thanks to his father’s steady employment in pick-up bands. They’re soon joined by keyboardist Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), selected because he’s the only black kid in school, and therefore “must have rhythm.” The ensemble is topped off by Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice), who tackle drums and bass.
Conor takes charge because he’ll be the singer/songwriter, a decision that goes down fairly smoothly. But he has no experience with either skill, and this is where Carney’s film displays its true heart, as layabout Brendan — a college dropout still at home because he has nothing else to do — gives his younger brother a crash course in “true music” via carefully selected, cutting-edge LPs.
It’s no accident, in a final text crawl, that Carney dedicates this film to all the brothers of this world; the dynamic between Walsh-Peelo and Reynor is achingly poignant. Conor’s unlikely scheme to win Raphina’s attention reminds Brendan of all the dreams he once had, and how they came to nothing; perhaps, then, he can succeed as a mentor.
And so Conor’s original songs gradually emerge, each new one a clever reflection of the narrative thus far. While they’re all lyrically deft, radio-friendly ear candy — performed with increasing sophistication by the fledgling band — nothing beats the beguiling, guerilla-style creation of the gang’s first video, complete with outlandish costumes, Darren’s shaky-cam, and Raphina’s too-generous application of make-up.
All the many delightful ingredients notwithstanding, Carney’s true talent lies in the way he so ingeniously creates a narrative environment in which the frequent performance of songs feels organic and completely reasonable. His best films are true musicals, but not in the sense of stopping the action to deliver some awkward production number. It was natural for Glen Hansard’s busker to perform on the street, just as it was logical for Keira Knightley’s budding singer/songwriter to struggle her way into a career.
Similarly, it makes perfect sense for Conor to keep trying to impress Raphina with new songs — all actually co-written by Carney and Scottish musician Gary Clark — and for the band members to bond as a self-defensive method of inheriting a bit of “cool” in order to insulate themselves from the many school toughs.
Most impressive is the fact that all of these kids — including Walsh-Peelo — are untrained, first-time actors. Their performances have a fresh-faced naturalism; they look and sound like “real kids” suddenly energized by this exciting new path. (I remember being similarly delighted by all the “real kids” in 1981’s Gregory’s Girl, with their sometimes crooked teeth and less-than-ideal features: such a welcome relief from the perfect specimens groomed by the Hollywood star machine.)
Boynton has been acting since her debut in 2006’s Miss Potter, and it shows in Raphina’s air of posh refinement (which is appropriate for her character ... although she’s a bit old to be playing 16). Reynor also has been busy for the past decade, and he brings subtle layering to his handling of Brendan. Wycherley, finally, makes Brother Baxter an impressively creepy monster.
This level of dramatic tension also contributes much to the gritty authenticity of Carney’s script. The buoyant songs and sweet young romance notwithstanding, this story has plenty of teeth, some of the sharper ones taking a bite so subtly that we’re scarcely aware of the torn flesh. These events unfold against the grim tidings of family estrangement, child abuse and other unpalatable, real-world details: the grist that makes Conor’s stubborn embrace of music so crucial, as potential salvation.
Carney cheerfully admits, in his film’s press notes, that the core story elements are autobiographical. It feels that way, and merely reinforces the underdog fantasy that propels us through this fictitious re-working: If Carney himself escaped such an upbringing to become a respected filmmaker — and now songwriter — then surely it’s reasonable to root for Conor, Raphina and all the rest of this story’s misfits.
Particularly when we have so much fun doing so.