Mark Reviews Movies

Sing Street


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: John Carney

Cast: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Mark McKenna, Ben Carolan, Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Kelly Thornton, Ian Kenny, Percy Chamburuka, Conor Hamilton, Karl Rice, Don Wycherley, Lydia McGuinness

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including strong language and some bullying behavior, a suggestive image, drug material and teen smoking)

Running Time: 1:46

Release Date: 4/15/16 (limited); 4/22/16 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 21, 2016

On a folded piece of paper near the end of the film, there are the unseen lyrics of an unheard song. The character passing on the paper to the protagonist says the song is about "this kid, a girl, and the future," and so, too, is writer/director John Carney's Sing Street, an equally delightful and insightful film that delves into the constant pangs and limitless possibilities of adolescence.

If the song and the film are about those three things, it also means that this is a film about the kid's struggles to find his identity, his troubled family, and his dreams of doing something with his life—even if he isn't quite sure what that "something" might be. It's also a film about the girl's tragic past, her difficult present, and her uncertain future. If it's a film about the future, it's a future in which nothing is clear, except the distinct possibility that, unless something drastic changes, it will follow the well-worn paths trailed by the past and the present.

The setting is Dublin in 1985. Citizens are emigrating en masse from Ireland, which has been undergoing terrible economic times for almost a decade, to the "mainland" of England, hoping to find work of any kind in London. No one seems to know for sure that things will be better there, but there's a sense that, at the moment, anywhere is better than here.

Those who stay behind have to make cuts to the household budget just to keep food on the table. Parents have to decide whether or not their children can stay in school. If there's already friction at home, it increases exponentially.

These are the trying times in which Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) finds himself. He is 15 years old, unsure about the present, doubtful about the future, and forced to confront the circumstances of the past that have led his family and—to the great dismay of realizing he never asked for it—him into this position. His only escape is music. As his parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) argue through the house, it's the music that drowns out the shouting.

The music of Connor's choosing must feel like something stolen from the future and brought back to this period of time: a new wave of bands combining rock and roll with synthesizers and other electronic sounds. Video was a few years on its way to killing the radio. Connor watches these music videos with his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), who dropped out of college and now sits at home, smoking weed and listening to his vinyl collection. A guitar—once well-played—sits unused in the corner of Brendan's bedroom. Connor absorbs his brother's opinion of Duran Duran and makes it his own.

To save money, Connor's parents send the teenager to a local Catholic school (the same school, by the way, that Carney went to in his own youth), overseen by the friars of an order within the Church who run the gamut from overly strict to drunkenly unaware. It's the kind of place where more emphasis is placed on the dress code than on any kind of study, as Connor learns after having to walk around in his socks because the kid's brown shoes go against the principal's (Don Wycherley) rules. Bullying and fights are ignored, because the school's motto has something to do with turning boys into men.

Connor doesn't want any of it—the school, the bullies, the friars' abuse or neglect of power, his parents' yelling, his older sister's (Kelly Thornton) plans to abandon her art for a more "reliable" profession, his brother's loafing, the rules, the expectations, the probability of failure. Of course, he meets a girl. Her name is Raphina (Lucy Boynton).

Every day, she stands on the stoop of a house across the street from the school. Connor works up the nerve to talk to her. Raphina says she's a model. He think she would be perfect for a music video he is going to shoot with his band. She wants to hear his music. He quickly realizes that he needs to start a band posthaste.

Carney starts with nostalgia for this place and time—the school, the family, the classmates, and, above all else in terms of fond remembrances, the music. Wisely, he doesn't merely stop there. This is a film that allows its characters to live and breathe as far more than just representations of a lost, lovingly recalled time. The school is presented in tiny details—a friar dragging on a hidden flask, students sneaking away to the boys' room for cigarettes, a single teacher (Lydia McGuinness) who seems to care amidst a faculty that doesn't.

Every character has at least one thing that rings true. Darren (Ben Carolan), who becomes the band's manager, is shorter than his classmates but makes up for his stature with unbridled confidence. Eamon (Mark McKenna), who helps put Connor's lyrics to music, can play a roomful of musical instruments, but when it comes time for him to pick an instrument to play in the band, he naturally chooses the electric guitar. Even the school bully (Ian Kenny) is seen in a sympathetic light following a scene in which we see him learning violence from his father.

As for the main cast, Carney's affection and empathy for these characters seems to have no limit. Connor starts his way to finding someone like himself by adopting the fashions of the bands he idolizes, but it's through his own writing that he gets there. Raphina begins the film as a kind of idol herself, but there's more beneath the surface.

A sign behind the stoop that Connor fails to notice for a while serves as the kid's first—but definitely not his last—realization that Raphina is not some riddle for him to solve (as the first song he writes inspired by her goes). A similar revelation occurs with Brendan, as Connor is confronted with the notion that his own frustrations with his parents could have been worse. Carney allows these characters to evolve on their own, but more importantly, he knows that learning to understand another person is as important as finding oneself.

Somehow, the music of the film has escaped direct observation, and that might be because Carney so effortlessly and meticulously uses it as a way to communicate what's happening in these characters' lives. Like Connor's fashion sense, the band's musical stylings start by aping whatever popular band the kids discover, but like the characters, the music develops into its own, singular entity—a little more pop, a lot less electronic, a whole lot of personal experience behind the lyrics.

The music influences the characters of Sing Street. It comes to define Connor (There's an energetic sequence that turns to heartbreak, as his dream music video is hindered by reality). The film may only be about "this kid, a girl, and the future," but that's just a simple way of saying it's about everything that matters.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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