It has been ten years since John Carney first graced our movie screens with his original musical film Once, a beautiful story about two musicians living in Dublin. The meager Sundance premiere became a critical darling and eventual Oscar-winner for the song “Falling Slowly.” Nine years and more movies later, Carney has created another new musical, Sing Street, full of heart, hope, and humor. Sing Street is also a Sundance darling, although it hasn’t been making the kind of waves that Once did, which is a darn shame. Sing Street is a wonderful movie that again makes use of Carney’s ability to depict the plight of urban, working-class Dubliners with music and style. The main difference here is that Once uses a contemporary setting and music, while Sing Street is set in 1980’s Dublin and uses 1980’s music in the style of Duran Duran and Depeche Mode.
The film follows a young boy named Conor, played by Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, whose father is a struggling architect that needs to place him into a free state school due to hard economic times. Conor looks up to his older brother, Brendan, played by Jack Reynor, who loves rock music and once dreamed of being a famous musician. One day, Conor, subject to bullying by Barry (Ian Kenny) and abuse by the schoolmaster Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley), sees a young girl named Raphina, played by Lucy Boynton, who lives across the street from the school. Raphina dreams of being a model, and Conor offers her a spot in his next music video for his band. Only one problem: he doesn’t have a band, and thus a music video. Conor soon recruits his new friend Darren, played by Ben Carolan, an aspiring producer and businessman, to put a band together. In a hilarious sequence that feels like something out of Rushmore, Conor and Darren recruit Eamon, a talented musician, a Black kid who they figure has to play something, and two other instrumentalists who just feel like playing in a band.
Their initial attempt at a music video is laughable, for obvious reasons, but slowly the story begins to build and Conor and Raphina begin to fall in love. Meanwhile Conor watches as his parents, played by Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy, grow distant and their marriage falls apart while his siblings have to deal with the aftermath. Raphina it turns out is living in an orphanage and is dating someone much older than she is who constantly tells her they’ll run away to London together. At the same time Conor and Raphina’s connection grows and his band becomes much more than just something to get a girl. The story itself slowly develops from a youthful tale of love and music to a deeper story about dreams, lost hopes, desperation, and using music and passion to get yourself out of that situation. Conor sees his parents’ marriage as a reflection of this and even Brendan’s past intentions of running away come into view. In their words “we have to get off of this bloody island.”
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Conor is a good find but Lucy Boynton as Ralphina is far-and-away the best actor in the whole movie. She brings such truth and tender emotion to her character, capturing the sense of desperation and her character’s need to escape. Jack Raynor as Brendan is another favorite in the movie, spending most of the time as a music-loving stoner, he gets one scene near the end to express his character’s inner rage. It’s among the best in the movie. All of the actors in the band also do a great job, making for a believable group of friends and a charming group of young men. The songs are all pertinent to the story and reflective of the developing characters in their deeper emotions and more complex musical style. The standout is “Drive It Like You Stole It” which gets something akin to a legitimate music video that is the best sequence in the film. My only major complaint for the film is that I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending, and that I wish that the smaller roles were given more time. Especially those in the band and Conor’s parents.
However these are minor quips and what is there is a delightful film that is able to capture both a small, personal story, and to give it a wider purpose in addressing the the emotional undercurrents I mentioned above. The relationship between Conor and Raphina is always believable and the chemistry between the actors is excellent. The music is delightful and the film moves along with an energy akin to the 80’s music that it is paying homage to. It will remain the biggest crime of this awards season that Lucy Boynton isn’t receiving more recognition for her work, however. That is a personal gripe but not one I will make with this film.