There’s an unkind formula at play in a fair few indie movies. That formula is brash, cynical, and often all too predictable. Think of the movies that purport to give us a gritty, close-up look at real life and real emotions. Think of the antithesis of Wes Anderson, a nail-bitten sort of movie with its characters already the unwitting punchlines of jokes they’ll only understand much farther into the plot. Think the prototypical millennial “pity me” story associated with Lena Dunham, or the current vogue for ripping to shreds fairytales with as much sex and violence as possible per frame.
Sing Street is refreshing in the face of that kind of persistent on-screen Girls-style despair at the world’s inability to show kindness in return for hope. Sing Street is a noisy, surprisingly fast-paced, exuberant day dream, splashed with a blaze of sharp, raucous 1980s music. Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenaged boy growing up in the Dublin of the ’80s, navigates the rough waters among his parents’ (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) splintering marriage, his deep affection for his burn-out older brother Brendan (rising star Jack Reynor), and the new dead-end school where his family’s suffering finances force him to transfer. Enter Raphina (Lucy Boynton), appearing in a haze of tobacco and denim across the street from Cosmo’s new school gates. A cryptic teenage beauty for whom Cosmo immediately develops a lightning-struck crush, he impetuously invites her to star in one of his band’s music videos, to which she tentatively agrees.
The only catch is that Cosmo does not actually have a band, a song, or a music video: and the plot’s antics build from there. The Billy Eliot overtones are inescapable, but moderated by a cheerful sincerity as we stay close to Cosmo’s point of view. One of the most admirable parts of this movie is its sense of balance. Popular memory constructs rock and roll as something richly sordid (see HBO’s memory-lane stroll in Vinyl). A fifteen-year-old protagonist, with his humorously young bandmates, seems rife for laughing dismissal, in a cultural moment defined by adult struggles—sex, drugs, money, love, violence—far beyond Cosmo’s family-home, Catholic-school life.
But by staying close to Cosmo’s point of view, writer/director John Carney (Once) prevents his indefatigable characters from becoming the butt of a joke. Their efforts at a band are imbued with childish simplicity: half dress-up game, half sincere and startling talent. The music is, much like Carney’s beloved Once, a centerpiece of the film, a smiling, foot-tapping, high-spirited rhythm tangled with hits from the era, blared alongside their music videos.
For all the movie’s darkness—which it has, in spades—there’s a neat balance of uplift. As their parents scream at each other, Cosmo and his siblings dance and smoke and drown them out with music in Brendan’s room. For each crushing secret let casually loose, there’s a warm train ride, the band dancing in the aisles with elderly passengers. Charm is the quintessential word here, and the movie’s charm comes from the untiring adherence to a child’s point of view.
It isn’t a child’s viewpoint the way we’ve seen it done—very, very well—in Room. In a story like Room, the viewer understands narrative with Ma’s adult knowledge, while Jack’s lens gives that knowledge an imaginative, emotive bend. In Cosmo’s case, we realize gradually that our adult understanding is lacking something fundamental as we look in at Cosmo’s day-to-day adventures. He’s a fantastic character that takes his audience by surprise, in an exceptional, straightforward performance by Walsh-Peelo for whom Sing Street is his first major role. Cosmo’s emotions are quick and convincingly juvenile, rushing from highs to lows to infatuation to brimming creative energy. The audience must gradually adapt to the scope and speed of the adolescent protagonist’s mind, both broader and more energized than the gray, inflexible adult routines round him.
The movie showcases a host of genuine young talent from its main characters, the adults appearing on the margins, just as they might in a child’s day. Raphina, the focal point of Cosmo’s fantastic little love story, portrays a tremendous dual-character, an object of affection whose unpredictability and mask of adulthood complicate a character who is, essentially, just as childish as Cosmo himself. She is just as tangled in the politics of being a teenager and simultaneously determined to be anything but. Her well-written complication also prevents her from falling into a neat box of a John Green manic-pixie-dream-girl, a painfully recurrent trope in which young, precocious, troubled, free-spirited girl inspires shy, artistic, teenaged boy to reach his full creative potential. Rather, Sing Street tells the story without the manic-pixie trope, with characters who refresh a beautifully personal story instead of bending to easy tropes.
This is a movie about being young at heart, anti-cynical, and justly rewarded, about trying to live up to your daydreams rather than set them aside. Like Diary of a Teenaged Girl, Carney lures the viewer into the expectation of a Girls-esque let-down lesson, only to take us by surprise with the luminous sincerity of a richly imagined protagonist. It’s difficult not to be swept along for the ride, the peculiarities of Cosmo’s world both utterly specific and entirely recognizable to adult audiences, now remembering that they, too, once knew better than to be satisfied.