The let’s-start-a-band narrative has plenty of proud, noisy precedents in cinematic history: There’s one for almost every kind of music fan, from cult classics Ladies and Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains and The Commitments to Tom Hanks’ shiny ‘60s bonbon That Thing You Do! and more recent upstarts like the raucous Swedish import We Are the Best!.
But John Carney may be the first writer-director to build his own one-man rock-movie canon: The bassist-turned-filmmaker’s micro-budgeted 2007 debut, Once, went on to become a Sundance smash, won a Best Original Song Oscar, and was eventually adapted into a hit Broadway play. Six years later, he followed with the glossier—if less affecting—folkie chronicle Begin Again, and now there’s Sing Street, his third straight meditation on the joys and struggles of living a musical life. A scrappy, tender-hearted charmer set in economically depressed Dublin circa 1985, it also feels like his best effort so far—maybe in part because it hews so close to his own biography.
Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo stars as Conor, a dorky-dreamy 15-year-old whose middle-class family’s reduced circumstances force him to transfer to Synge Street—an all-boys state school that turns out to be less a temple of learning than a temporary holding pen for teenage delinquency. (It’s actually a real place, and Carney’s own alma mater.) From the first miserable day, Conor becomes a soft target for both the sneering headmaster and a jackbooted bully named Barry (Ian Kenny), but salvation soon comes in the form of neighborhood beauty Raphida (Lucy Boynton). A self-proclaimed model and sophisticated older woman of 16, she doesn’t have much time for kids like him, until he has the brilliant idea to bluff that he’s a singer in a band; maybe she’d be interested in appearing in their next video? She’s intrigued enough to agree—which means of course that he needs to back up his story, stat. The motley crew of misfits, kooks, and questionably talented keyboard players he recruits actually turn out to have some real, messy chemistry, and Conor’s interest in homework and exams quickly falls by the wayside. Instead, his classroom becomes the hash-hazy bedroom of his older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor), a homebound stoner-sage who is more than happy to usher him into the timeless mysteries of Duran Duran and Steely Dan.
Nothing that follows is all that unexpected, but Carney handles the script’s mix of stonewashed ‘80s whimsy and coming-of-age drama so deftly that even the most time-worn turns feel more endearing than trite: It’s like a lost John Hughes movie with Irish brogues and cars that just happen to drive on the other side of the road. It’s also, sadly, exactly the kind of sweet little film that too often gets buried in a box office ruled by broader comedies and bloated superhero epics. Give it a chance, though; Sing Street deserves to be heard above the noise. A–