If your first thought upon seeing the trailer for Sing Street was "Oh, the Once guy made his movie again," you're not far off. John Carney's latest is another whimsical tale of love and music conquering all, this time through the lens of an Irish teenager starting a band to impress a girl. If you've seen either that film or Begin Again, you can likely take it from there — not that there aren't charms along the way.
The film is set amid Ireland's economic woes of the mid-'80s, when many were fleeing to London for one reason or another. Our young hero Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is forced to transfer to a lesser school thanks to his parents' hard economic times. Across the street from said academic institution is a pretty older girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who's quite literally too cool for school. Having watched Duran Duran's music video for "Rio" on Top of the Pops the night before, Conor thinks on his feet and convinces her that his band just happens to need a model for an upcoming video shoot. The problem, of course, is that he isn't in a band and doesn't play any instruments.
Everything falls into place about 10 minutes later, with Sing Street (a play on the name of Conor's new school, Synge Street CBS) forming on the strength of an enterprising young manager, a multi-instrumentalist, and a few posters plastered around working-class Dublin. Conor is advised by his hip older brother, whom we instantly recognize as a rebellious intellectual from his ponytail and status as an underachieving college dropout. It's he who educates young Conor in the ways of music theory and appreciation, impressing upon the young lad the importance of forward-thinking tunes.
Conor has no trouble walking up to a pretty girl or writing a genuinely catchy song ("The Riddle of the Model") on his first try, which undercuts the everykid vibe Carney works hard to establish in the early scenes. It's a foregone conclusion in movies of this nature that the good guy's going to get the girl and impress everyone at school during the annual talent show, but the writer-director is so loath to even go through the motions of making any of this feel like a challenge that there are no real stakes. If you want a band of 15-year-olds to feel like a motley crew, it's important to make it so they're not instantly a better band than the actual Mötley Crüe.
Sing Street's repertoire is also quite vast, with Conor going through musical phases at rapid speed: Duran Duran gives way to the Cure gives way to a punk-inflected anti-establishment bent. This best-of approach is as exceedingly unrealistic as it is easy on the ear; like most else in the film, the exchange Carney has in mind is that he provide winsome entertainment and we overlook the utter implausibility of almost every narrative beat.
Sing Street is nevertheless charming in a way that feels as effortless as the eponymous band's nonexistent learning curve. The real conflict here stems from the imminent dissolution of Conor's parents' marriage and the fact that Raphina has an older boyfriend. In what's easily the best sequence, the quintet shoots a new video inspired by Back to the Future in the school gymnasium while Conor waits in vain for the object of his affection to arrive. The perspective switches from what's actually happening to a wish-fulfillment vision of his preferred reality: Raphina shows up in grand fashion, his parents reconcile, and his brother disarms Raphina's knife-wielding boyfriend.
Then it ends. The moment is beautiful not for its happiness but for its melancholy. This is a projection of things as they'll never be, and also Sing Street at its most honest. Almost the entire film plays like an adolescent reverie, but here Carney finally admits that that's all it is before snatching it away and returning us to things as they really are.
Directed by John Carney
Opens Friday, Uptown Theatre