Known for his video essays dissecting the style of other filmmakers, first-time director Kogonada brings a unique voice and eye for images to his debut picture. Two people find themselves intersecting in Columbus, Indiana, a center for modernist buildings. A Korean man, Jin (John Cho; Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle), is forced to come to the city when his father, an architecture professor, has a medical emergency. He meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson; The Edge of Seventeen), a young architecture enthusiast delaying her college education to take care of her unstable mother. They begin meeting regularly as Casey shows Jin her favorite buildings in the city.
As the leads of the film, Cho and Richardson form a believable companionship. There is a hint of romantic feelings between them, but the film never makes them explicit. This is a relationship closer to that of Once than a typical romance. Richardson plays Casey as a bright, curious young woman that cares so deeply about her mother that she would neglect her own desires, but unfortunately Cho can’t match her performance. His readings as Jin are often stilted as he tries to relate to Casey, but their similar situations are enough reason to justify their bond. Both characters are trapped in Columbus by a parent and their candid conversations while surrounded by beautiful buildings become a gentle form of mutual therapy.
Kogonada revels in the modernist architecture of the city. He relies on his fixed, wide-angled camera to allow the audience to dwell in the environments and heavily incorporates shots of building exteriors as connective tissue between scenes. Even though the locations are immaculate with each piece of fabric and furniture precisely chosen, they never feel sterile. He frequently uses symmetry in his framings and one-point perspective that funnels the viewer’s attention deep into the image, similar to the compositions favored by Edward Yang. For Kogonada, each plane of the image is of value and action is frequently placed at multiple depths. There are no flat backgrounds that only provide pleasant scenery here. Kogonada’s multidimensional images have a still, contemplative beauty.
There are several points where the director uses dialogue to reference his intents as a filmmaker. Referring to their dinner, Casey’s mother comments that it needed more spice to which she replies, “I was going for something a little more subtle.” In another scene, a librarian posits that people not being interested in reading is “…not a crisis of attention, but a crisis of interest.” With each of these lines, Kogonada appears to be describing his own style. The film has a subtle tone and may not have enough overt emotion to keep everyone interested. It’s true that it could have used more flavor. Jin’s estranged relationship with his father is something that is mentioned but never fully fleshed out and it leaves his character lacking in comparison to Casey. His motivations and callous behavior relating to his father’s health don’t receive the depth needed to be fully sympathetic which drains the film of some its central drama. Kogonada’s debut may not be a full success, but his pensive tone and skill with image composition mark him as a filmmaker of high potential.
What would you do to impress someone? For Conor Lalor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), the answer to that question is basically anything. After being transferred to a new school, he sees Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing across the road and goes up to talk to her. He finds out that she’s a model so he creates a relationship the only way he knows how: he asks her to be in a music video for his band. This would have been a good idea except he doesn’t actually have a band. Conor and his friend recruit band members and start writing songs and making music videos. His initial hope is just to find an excuse to talk to Raphina but eventually his musical ambitions grow to match and entwine with his romantic goals.
The film is set in the ’80s and is heavily influenced by the music of the era. Conor’s older brother hands out records like a teacher assigns homework to guide the musical progression of the band. Duran Duran, Hall & Oates, The Cure and more artists are the sonic inspiration for the developing group as well as the soundtrack to the film. The band’s original music begins spectacularly as each song is energetic, catchy, and sincerely adolescent. Despite the high production values added by the real songwriter and music producer, they feel honest to the characters’ age. These early tracks are so memorable that when the later songs are played, while still strong, they feel lackluster in comparison. Instead of steadily building to a showstopping number, the film’s final performance is overshadowed which detracts from the emotional climax that it is supposed coincide with.
Director John Carney (Once) displays a deep affection for his characters. The story is the semi-autobiographical account of his own childhood and each of the band members, while clearly misfits, are endearing in their own way. The main cast had no prior acting experience and Carney is able bring out natural performances from them. The key instrumental talent Eamon (Mark McKenna) spends most of his time doing “rabbit stuff” and the pint-sized redhead Darren (Ben Carolan) is oblivious to his own limits as he signs up as the band’s manager, music video producer, and cinematographer. They’re also hilariously unaware of their mistakes. Conor’s attempts at acting cool in front of Raphina are endearing failures and the band’s attempts at creating a signature look fail miserably as each band member is limited to what he can find in his closet, This leads to a band with members dressed in a ’80s suede disco suit, a heavy trenchcoat, and even a cowboy.
It is this disregard for realities and probabilities that gives Sing Street its infectious charm. The characters are underdogs that don’t realize it and they take every challenge head on. Form a band? Ok. Write a song? Let’s get started. They never take a moment to examine their own abilities which fills the film with a sweet, naive optimism. And this applies to more than making music. The film compares music to love. Conor’s brother says “Rock and a roll is a risk…” and its clear throughout that this is the same risk Conor takes in pursuing Raphina. In pursuing his passion, he risks ridicule and failure, but, as Raphina puts it, “for [your] art [you] can never do anything by half.” Sing Street is a vivacious and endearing story of growing up through music and romance with an exceptional soundtrack that will be on many playlists for years to come.