You may know John Carney as the writer and director of Once and Begin Again, both indie romantic comedies with fantastic soundtracks about struggling musicians in major cities. His new film Sing Street, which debuted locally this past Sunday at the Phoenix Film Festival, makes the three a sort of spiritual trilogy. The film sets itself apart with a high school-age cast, but otherwise it fits the mold of its predecessors exactly.
By now, Carney looks a bit like a one-trick pony, and yet he does his one trick so well that it hardly matters.
Sing Street stars Ferdia Walsh-Peelo as Cosmo, a 15-year-old Dublin native in 1985 who transfers to the public school Synge Street CBS when his parents can no longer afford private school. He faces bullies and oppressive teachers, but every day he sees the gorgeous Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing opposite the schoolyard. He gathers the courage to approach her one day and, in a nervous panic, asks her to be in his band's music video. Of course, that means he and his only friend, Darren (Ben Carolan), have to actually form a band. So they gather up instrumental aficionado Eamon (Mark McKenna) and a ragtag group of cohorts, and they become Sing Street.
And once Cosmo starts writing his songs, they're all actually kind of great. Not just great by the standards of high-school bands, but easily as good as any 1980s chart-topper (and, for that matter, any of the original songs from Once and Begin Again). That an early high schooler with only a passing knowledge of guitar could suddenly write such shockingly catchy and diverse tunes pushes the bounds of realism more than anything else in the film. Still, most of the fun in Sing Street comes from these songs, not just because they're worthy hits on their own merits, but because they act as a charming metric of Cosmo's character growth, both as an artist and as a budding adult beginning to understand love.
This works largely because Walsh-Peelo, in his acting debut, delivers such a remarkable performance. As Cosmo directly apes the look and attitude of his various influences from Duran Duran to the Cure, Walsh-Peelo naturally inhibits the space in between awkward and smooth, clearly out of his depth in his attempts to be cool and yet somehow pulling it off through pure, earnest commitment. In fact, Carney brings out great performances in the young actors here across the board, and their naturalistic naivete gives way to much of the film's delightful humor.
It's when this humor begins to fade in the latter half of the film in favor of heavier emotional territory that it becomes clear how much the film sustained on pure charm up until that point. Cosmo only ever faces the most run-of-the-mill obstacles for a coming-of-age film: the brutish bully, the strict teacher, the arguing parents, the girl's older boyfriend. It's a shame that the film takes so few risks in its exploration of 1980s Irish life and young love — and that up until its somewhat preposterous ending, the film almost never presents an unexpected plot development.
Still, Sing Street is good, clean fun, and anyone who liked Carney's previous work will almost definitely have a ball with it. If nothing else, we'll all probably get a lot of play out of the soundtrack once it has a proper release.
Phoenix Film Festival continues at Harkins Scottsdale 101. See the Phoenix Film Festival website for a complete schedule and tickets.