SXSW Review: 'Sing Street' Plays Like 'Once' Meets 'Billy Elliot'
In 2007, the cause of digital filmmaking was helped immensely by the widespread appeal of a small indie from Ireland. Once told the romantic tale of a heartbroken Dublin busker and a meek Czech single-mum, grabbed worldwide attention, birthed a beautiful band, spurred a real-life romance, and won its stars (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) an Academy Award for the tender ballad, “Falling Slowly.” From there, writer/director John Carney struggled to create a follow-up that could compete. Though undeniably sweet, 2013’s Begin Again mostly felt like a glossy Hollywood remake of Once. But with Sing Street, Carney recaptures his unique musical magic that first captured the world’s imagination.
Hot off its buzzed about premiere at Sundance, Sing Street hit SXSW as a must-see for many. The vibe in the theater on the festival’s opening night was giddy with anticipation, and this jaunty coming-of-age story didn’t disappoint.
Set in 1985 Dublin, Sing Street plays like Once meets Billy Elliot. Flush-faced newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo stars as Connor, an aspiring musician whose teen years get exponentially tougher when his middle class family’s financial troubles force him to transfer to a scruffy Catholic all-boys school. In a fateful first day, he manages to get on the wrong side of both the school’s sneering principal and its sexually frustrated bully. But Connor finds a ray of hope when he catches the eye of a chic girl named Raphina (Lucy Boyton, a revelation).
Conniving an excuse to talk to this New Age beauty, Connor claims he has a band in need of a model for their new music video. She’s intrigued. So he better get a band together. The misfits he wrangles for this endeavor are the outcasts of Synge Street Catholic Brothers School: the ginger, the black kid, the runts, and a musically gifted oddball who feels no shame for his earnest appreciation for rabbits. Like many teens before and after them, these kids find community, confidence and self-acceptance through music.
Carney uses the motley crew’s exploration of different styles of ’80s rock not only as a way to create an incredibly catchy soundtrack, but also as a path for identity and self-discovery. The audience roared with laughter as inspirations collide, with one member wearing a cowboy costume, another rocking a leisure suit, and yet another wearing his mother’s clothes in a vain attempt at pulling off a New Romantic vibe. They steal style from Depeche Mode, The Cure, and Back To the Future’s big prom finale number before they find their own. It’s a teen move that’s so memorable, you might suffer flashbacks.
Sing Street is rich in ’80s nostalgia and laughs over the foibles of teendom. But Carney is careful not to make his heroes too precious or objects of ridicule. We laugh from recognition. We laugh with them, not at them. Maybe it’s my own upbringing in the ’80s and in a Catholic school that had me relating so intensely to Connor and the gang’s quest to fight back against a society that calls them freaks. But I suspect it’s actually that Carney so succinctly and passionately paints the specifics of this world that its coming-of-age tale proves blissfully and jubilantly universal.
Packed with child actors, there’s a high risk factor that Sing Street will be a hokey mess of aw-shuckness. But Walsh-Peelo has an almost eerie-authenticity that grounds the film’s more one-dimensional characters. And his chemistry with Boynton, who breathes tear-jerking depth into a potential manic-pixie-dream-girl role, is mesmerizing. Beyond them, special shout-outs are owed to Mark McKenna, who brought a layered warmth to Connor’s right-hand-man Eamon, and Jay Reynor as Connor’s pothead brother, Ireland’s answer to Chris Pratt. Yeah, Reynor is exactly as goofy yet endearing as that implies.
Ultimately, Sing Street is a bittersweet celebration of youth and that sweet spot where life’s possibilities seems infinite and terrifying all at once. Carney builds his story from a familiar foundation, then uses the imagination of its heroes to grow into fantasy sequences, musical numbers, and a rousing finale that will make you want to stand up and cheer.
Sing Street opens April 15th.
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