John Carney has always had the ability to commission endearingly charming films about overcoming obstacles to achieve your dreams and Sing Street doesn’t stray from that path. Ditching modern Dublin’s (very) independent music scene in Once or a New York City “has been” trying to reclaim past glory like in Begin Again for a more personal tale of a group of kids in 1980s Ireland creating a band to impress a girl and make friends, Carney seems to be completely at home in the semi-autobiographical material that not only charms you with its endless parade of cute moments among its cast, but also digs into the role of siblings in a family relationship and the role of passions and dreams as an escape from the cruelties of life.
The film follows Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a young dreamer who is thrust into a new school after budget cuts at home require him to seek a much cheaper option. Once there, he meets up with Darren (Ben Carolan), who begins to show him the ropes of his new school. One of the ropes that most interests Conor is Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an older girl who waits outside her home across the street from the school each day.
Working up the courage to walk over, Conor decides to go and speak with Raphina and learns that she is an aspiring model. It just so happens that Conor’s band is looking for a model to perform in their latest music video and offers the part to Raphina, who says she will consider it with a sly smile. Unbeknownst to Darren (or Conor), there is no band and they compile a group of other misfits from the school to create Sing Street — a hodgepodge musical group.
As mentioned, this is not new territory for Carney as both of his previous features have included the main character trying to round up a group to create music, but Sing Street does its best to separate itself in its coming-of-age roots and the on-the-surface struggle of the main character with a disastrous home life.
Both of his parents (played by Maria Doyle Kennedy and Aidan Gillen) are unhappy and seeking a divorce. The muffled arguments from the hall flood Conor’s room on multiple occasions with Carney lacing in the role of music as an escape for both the young boy and his older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), who works as the closest thing to a father figure that Conor has.
Brendan gave up on his passion of music and has resided to smoking pot and throwing insults at Robert (his dad) rather than making something of his life. While the prevalent romantic aspect in both of his previous features creeps into the main story in Sing Street, Carney re-positions the focus of musical escape and brings the family aspect to full center here.
While it is joyous to see Conor do his best to woo Raphina, the most substantial and transformative relationship he has in his life is with Brendan, who Reynor plays expertly. Reaching out his hand to offer advice and guidance, but never afraid to pull it back with a hardy slap, the relationship between Conor and his brother has a transcendent quality that was lacking in Carney’s last film and allows it to branch from the formulaic plot that he has worked with over the course of two movies.
Again aided by a stellar soundtrack, Sing Street still wears some of the beats you’ve seen in most coming-of-age or Carney films before, but the storytelling by the director provides the film with a freshness that is joyously unexplainable. It is the definition of a feel-good movie, one that you’ll be smiling about outside of the theater upon exit.
There is something endearing about these kids, who Carney captures in a very John Hughes-esque light, and how they course the waters of youth. The world is pushing down on them as news reels show the exodus from Ireland to London (even Raphina dreams of modeling in London magazines) and bullying from both other students and teachers creates a hostile environment for Conor and the others.
Maybe it is just Carney’s passion that is coursing through the veins of this film, but this story is utterly delightful from start to finish. There is something fresh about a work that is able to navigate through tough terrains — meeting them head-on and challenging them — but also allows for some of the most genuinely moving and uplifting moments of film this year.
As Conor rips through his Back to the Future homage in a crowded (but dream-induced) gym late in the film, with each major character showing up to join in on the comradery, it is almost impossible not to stand up and cheer for this kid — even when the magic is lifted quickly afterwards. Sing Street is about dreaming and dreaming big, and in a cinematic climate that looks to dig into the deep, ugly truths, we need a little romantic in our lives.