There are no two ways about it: "Sing Street" is pure bliss. Writer-director John Carney's (2007's "Once" and 2013's "Begin Again") 1980s-set musical ode to growing up and finding one's passion takes place in a cynical world, yet has no time or patience for cynicism. Uplifted on the winds of great storytelling and an impeccable understanding of the popular music of its era, the film is a tad grittierat least visuallythan John Hughes' classic teen pictures, but very much at one with their bittersweet, ultimately hopeful tone and empathetic depictions of adolescence. This is the kind of joyous movie where audiences drift out of the theater as if on a cloud.
With bickering parents Robert (Aidan Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) struggling financially, 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is pulled out of his upscale Jesuit academy and forced to enroll in the less-costly Synge Street Christian Brothers School. In the midst of adjusting to this change, fending off bully Barry (Ian Kenny), and almost immediately locking horns with the tyrannical head of the school Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley), Conor longs for a little inspiration in his life. He finds it, first in the music video for Duran Duran's "Rio" and then at the sight of 16-year-old Raphina (Lucy Boynton), an aspiring model who, surprisingly, is receptive to his impromptu invitation to star in a music video. With little time to pull together a band, Conor enlists a ragtag group of classmatesamong them, new friend/makeshift cameraperson Darren (Ben Carolan), instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna), keyboardist Ngig (Percy Chamburuka), and cred-seeking brothers Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice) on bass and drumsand quickly gets to work on writing a song. The outcome, called "The Riddle of the Model," wins Raphina over enough for her to agree to participate in the video. As Conor continues to fall for this slightly older muse, he not only discovers he enjoys singing and making music, but actually has some natural talent for it.
"Sing Street" is tough when it needs to be, but filled with an infectious hopefulness. As Conor navigates an in-flux home lifehis parents ceaselessly argue, while recent college dropout brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) has fallen into an aimless, hash-hazed ruthe finds himself experimenting with different alternative looks within a strict learning institution that has no time for individuality. The rough-and-tumble Dublin milieu, which Conor and Raphina find suffocating, is vividly depicted, adding to their longing to one day escape from a place too small for their burgeoning dreams. In the meantime, Conor's solace is musicthe popular tunes which surround him, and those which he creates. The heaven-sent soundtrack combines numerous indelible '80s cuts with insanely catchy original songs ("Drive It Like You Stole It," "Up," "A Beautiful Sea," "Brown Shoes") every bit as memorable as those from the bands (Hall & Oates, The Cure, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran) and styles (most notably New Wave synth-pop) in which they lovingly emulate.
If the music in "Sing Street" is its soul, the relationship between Conor and Raphina is its vulnerable, untradeable heart. Newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Lucy Boynton give true breakthrough performances in two exquisitely written roles. On their own, they are charismatic and instantly likable, actors with gravitas and endless appeal. Together, their chemistry is thrilling; they may only still be young teenagers and who knows what might happen a few years down the road, but for this moment at this time in their lives they seem perfect for each other. Conor initially doesn't believe he has a chance with Raphinashe is, after all, one year his senior and has an older boyfriend who drivesbut the connection they share is palpable from the minute he takes a chance and walks up to her.
Walsh-Peelo is tremendous as Conor, a guy influenced by the music he loves but steadfastly his own person; his scenes with adrift brother Brendan, played with kindness and melancholy by Jack Reynor (2014's "Transformers: Age of Extinction
"), bring levity and depth to the discord their family is facing. Boynton displays a chameleonic gift as Raphina, able to look confident and hard-edged one minute and childlike and poignantly fallible the next. Without a strong parental figure (her dad has died, and her mom is in and out of the hospital for manic depression), Raphina dreams of going to London to pursue modeling. She doesn't feel like she belongs in Ireland and there isn't much to stay put for, which makes the songs Conor is inspired to write about her all the more special. Boynton is an effervescent find, expressive and naturally attune to herself in front of the camera.
"Sing Street" is sweepingly romanticnot only in regard to the possibly star-crossed Conor and Raphina, but concerning the music which forms the soundtrack of their coming of age. Seeing a film in 2016 that is so richly ensconced in 1985 will prove unavoidably nostalgic for viewers old enough to remember this period, or, really, anyone with the time and perspective to look back on a youth since past. Again and again, "Sing Street" soars with the pain and exhilaration of first love, the excitement of independence, and the gratification of creative passion. Director John Carney keeps the picture buzzing along right through and beyond the climax where Conor's band performs at his school's End-of-Term Disco, their first official gig culminating in a long-time-coming middle finger to the authority figures who have tried to keep them down. Blessedly bereft of the pessimism which sometimes accompanies similar movies about the trials and tribulations of teenagehood, the final scenes are pitch-perfect in their buoyant, whimsical nature. Indeed, the spontaneous decision Conor and Raphina make right at the end is so crazy it just might change both of their lives for the better.