“Maybe you’re living in my world but I’m not living in yours.”
A passion project will almost always be flawed. A film in which a writer/director pulls very directly from past experiences and pours their essence into, will almost always have a fatal flaw that keeps it from greatness. So it is with Sing Street, the latest film from Irish director John Carney, whose films have an undeniable musicality to them whether or not they’re actually about music. This is one of Carney’s music films, alongside the decent Once, and Begin Again, which I haven’t seen.
This time, it’s a musical bildungsroman—man, I don’t get to use that word enough—about a family falling apart as seen through the eyes of the youngest son, Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). A hopeless romantic forced, for financial reasons, to attend an all boys Catholic school in Dublin, Ireland circa 1985. Carney himself was 13 at the time the movie is set, so it can’t help but feel autobiographical, yet whimsical all at the same time. Cosmo falls for a pretty girl who lives in a girl’s home across the street named Raphina (Lucy Boynton), and convinces her that he’s in a band.
This meet-cute further propels him to seek out other musically talented kids in the neighborhood like Eamon (Mark McKenna), who more or less becomes the Paul McCartney to Cosmo’s John Lennon. The film is never better than when it’s focused on the dynamic between these lovable kids who lives on the outskirts of popularity. Cosmo’s relationship with his seemingly deadbeat older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) is the other love story in the film as well, as Cosmo gets an invaluable music education from his brother.
For as many times as the film skirts convention, there’s also a reason this debuted at Sundance. It’s a Sundance movie, and if you know what I mean by that—or if you remember films like The Spitfire Grill and Happy, Texas—you’ll have a good sense of what to expect.
It’s flawed, but in a way that only true passion projects can be, in the way where there’s just too much at stake for it to all resolve itself neatly, yet somehow it manages to anyway. The film more or less abandons all the other characters in the third act to focus solely and squarely on Cosmo, and that’s fine, but with so much time spent building up these other, terrifically realized characters, that’s a bit of a cop-out for them.
While the film features a number of low-budget music videos of songs written by the band, we only get one slickly produced music video during a rehearsal sequence in a gymnasium. In fact, it’s such a perfect ending to this film that occurs a good twenty minutes before the actual ending. Those final minutes can’t help but feel anticlimactic following such a brilliantly realized fantasy, especially when what we get is no less fantastical.
The cast is what makes the film work, however. Jack Reynor is terrific even if his accent is a bit dodgy at times. Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy are a joy as the parents, especially watching them dance in the final music video. Lucy Boynton is terrific, reminiscent of a young Fairuza Balk. Beautiful in an unconventional way that would totally cut to the core of a teenage outsider. And Ferdia Walsh-Peelo is excellent. His growth as a musician is evident throughout the film, and he’s a solid presence as an actor throughout.
The film ends up hanging too many of its major incidents on clichéd formula: abusive priest, indecisive object of affection, bullies just want to belong. It’s a shame too because it is a film that’s easy to love because of how affectionate it is, both toward its protagonists and music in general. It belongs in a genre alongside Rushmore and Rocket Science in the determined-and-unyielding-boy-genius-falls-in-love stories. It ultimately builds toward too many climaxes and doesn’t consolidate them neatly enough, leaving the final twenty minutes to drag as its obvious pieces of the story are still being assembled.
If it’s any consolation, I wasn’t terribly fond of Rushmore the first time I saw it, and when I got back around to seeing it on VHS, I fell in love with its unwieldiness.
My greatest hope for the film is that I can accept its faults and grow to love the characters and the story. It’s entirely possible because this film is unabashedly romantic, and those are the kinds of films that end up becoming favorite films for viewers. If you’re already there with “Sing Street,” I salute you and I hope to join you one day. For me, though—on first viewing—it’s got far too many flaws for me to recommend unconditionally.