Set in 1985 Dublin, "Sing Street" is a seriously endearing picture from John Carney, the writer-director of "Once," about which I am crazy. For his latest, I'm two-thirds crazy. That's percentage enough.
Working on a broader canvas, creating a different sort of artist's fantasy of fulfillment than the plaintive "Once" offered, "Sing Street" accommodates elements of gritty realism and liberating escapism, one feeding the other.
One minute you're watching the young protagonist dragged into a school bathroom and, in a scene as harrowing as anything in "Zero Dark Thirty," waterboarded by his stern Catholic school educator in the name of removing the boy's offending Duran Duran makeup. The next minute, the same boy, Conor, played by screen newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, is channeling his anger and confusion into shooting a low-fi music video with his bandmates and the aspiring model Raphina (Lucy Boynton) who fills Conor's head-space every waking moment.
Carney remembers well what it meant to be bullied and marginalized and then to find his own way through the rough stuff: by starting a band and letting the music act as both sword and shield.
As with "Once," the filmmaker has made the sensible decision to cast musicians first and actors secondarily. Conor is one of three kids living with their unhappily married and increasingly cash-strapped parents. Conor's sister (Kelly Thornton) bears down on her studies and her goals of being an architect; his college dropout brother (Jack Reynor) concentrates primarily on getting stoned and delving into his stacks and stacks and crates of vinyl LPs.
"Sing Street" is simplicity itself: It's about Conor putting together a band to impress the exotic, slightly older girl Boynton portrays as a series of shifting attitudes and hairstyles that mask a history of abuse. Conor's rabbit-loving songwriting partner (Mark McKenna) and fledgling boy producer and video cameraman (Ben Carolan, all red hair and braces) are joined by other misfits who become the members of Sing Street. The band takes its name from the Synge Street School (which Carney himself attended) named for the Irish dramatist John Millington Synge.
Here's what I love about Carney: He's funny on the fly. The visual and character details are choice. Having just asked Raphina to star in his band's video, Conor crosses the street with his pal and says, slightly panicked: "We need to form a band!" The bit is made by Walsh-Peelo's "yikes!" face, and the way director Carney captures it without lingering on the sight gag. Even the more obvious notions -- the boys continually change their look depending on which '80s band they're into that week -- are brought off in style.
Toward the end "Sing Street" pares away the side characters in favor of the Conor/Raphina story, which has its drawbacks. For one, we miss the other characters, if only because Carney cast them so well. For another, the movie reaches for a rather shameless conclusion, more about the movies and musical fantasies than real life. See it; decide if it works for you. Either way, whether you listened to this music or grew up in this era or not, "Sing Street" feels like a three-minute pop song, flavorsome and catchy, in movie form.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including strong language and some bullying behavior, a suggestive image, drug material and teen smoking).
Running time: 1:45