Score one for going home again. After misfiring with Begin Again, a film that asked us to worry over a disillusioned A&R man's efforts to coax a folk-pop album out of Keira Knightley, writer-director John Carney has turned back to the striving Irish of Once, his breakout hit. He's also hearkened to the pop of his youth, setting this boisterous tale of a Catholic-school garage band in 1985 and letting his fifteen-year-old singer-songwriter Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) adopt the sounds and personae of that era's synth-pop heroes.
Carney's Dublin is troubled and hardscrabble, but this is an aspirational musical from a born crowd-pleaser, so don't expect an unflinching look at poverty — and don't expect the characters to ever stop looking as if they're trying to prove it's 1985, with their frosted tips and denim pantsuits. (One heartfelt exchange between crushed-out kids is underscored to a gentle solo-piano interpretation of A-Ha's “Take on Me,” and I defy you to tell me whether it's parodic.)
But Sing Street pleases, all right, and even occasionally hits on truth: At first Conor's band apes Duran Duran, whom he's seen on Top of the Pops. Then his stoner older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), hips him to more daring fare, and soon Conor — already chided by classmates for being a bit posh — shows up at school in full Cure regalia, once even smearing on a faceful of makeup. That doesn't go well for him, but Carney and Walsh-Peelo emphasize the character's strength rather than his occasional victimization. He's always defiant in the face of attacks on whichever self he's currently trying on.
Wittily, the songs Conor writes for his band all echo hits of the era that we've seen him discover: “In Between Days,” “Maneater,” even “Axel F.” Sing Street tracks Conor and his somewhat underdeveloped mates over a school year, and the film's richest pleasure, even more than its excellent new pop songs, is watching the young men grown into themselves — even if, in getting there, they have to imitate. Carney is smart about how much creative kids draw on the cultural material around them as they will themselves into being. “I'm a futurist — no nostalgia!” Conor declares, not realizing how much the past informs his Soft Cell present and also gently lampooning the film's soundtrack of Gen-X oldies.
Carney's also smart about musical numbers. Sure, the songs (written by Gary Clark and Carney) sound too confident, too fully composed, to come from sixteen-year-olds. But their borrowings are bold, sometimes comic, and the lyrics are perfect youthful notebook scribblings: “She's standing on the corner/Like an angel in disguise” kicks off a priceless new-romantic pastiche titled “The Riddle of the Model.” Carney shows us the songs as works in progress, and — as in Once and Begin Again — they always articulate some longing of the characters. He also finds an excuse to give us slicker sounds and production numbers than the milieu can account for; he's after what these dreamers imagine their music sounds like, which excuses a blowout 1950s prom-dance fantasy inspired by Conor's love of Back to the Future.
That dreaming sets Conor at odds with the punkish realists of Lukas Moodysson's We Are the Best!!, ’80s girls who know exactly how terrible they sound and can't imagine bothering to practice to get better. But Carney and Conor are both dreaming of hits, so Sing Street builds toward a big performance before the whole school that — well, let's not spoil it, but you'd have to have never seen a movie before to think the kids are gonna bomb.
There's a love story, of course. Conor falls for Lucy Boynton's Raphina, a sixteen-year-old orphan who dreams of becoming a model and isn't above telling a cute younger boy she already is one. But she dates an older dude (we know he's a dud because he tools about in his car blasting Phil Collins-era Genesis) and is forever threatening to migrate to London. Conor first writes songs and forms the band to impress her, and she's the star of their attempts at camcorder-shot, MTV-style video clips, one of the film's highlights.
Sing Street's everyday Dubliners may too often look as if they're wearing self-conscious 1985 costumes, but the in-story costumes actually selected by the bandmembers are a joy: Conor in cheap-ass Byronic foppery; guitarist Eamon (Mark McKenna) in a velour tux; the pipsqueak bass player in a cowboy hat and cow-print PJs. Raphina, meanwhile, takes over their makeup, smolders for their camera and gives speeches about living for art that will throb in the hearts of earnest teens.
Raphina is maddeningly mercurial, a character who sometimes seems to serve the script's need for occasional crises rather than her own agenda. Still, Boynton and Walsh-Peelo spark together, and Carney undercuts the self-serious romancing by being honest about the awkward trickiness of first kisses — and second ones, too. Singing, dreaming, making out: Despite some familiar formula, these characters make all three feel new again.