With “Once,” “Begin Again” and now “Sing Street,” the Irish writer-director John Carney is becoming his own cottage industry, reliably churning out beguiling, music-driven idylls steeped in winsome emotion and, in this case, big, delicious dollops of nostalgia.
Following close on the heels of Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!,” Carney’s “Sing Street” doubles down on rock and pop hits from the 1980s, immersing viewers in a soothing bath of A-ha, Duran Duran, Joy Division and Hall and Oates. If those bands don’t literally appear on the soundtrack, they’re invoked in a series of sound-alike knockoffs that Carney wrote with Gary Clark and that are performed with just the right mix of virtuosity and amateurish brio by lead actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo.
Walsh-Peelo’s character, Conor, is a teenager living in Dublin in the 1980s; music is less a passion with him than with his idolized older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor). But when Conor is forced to attend a rough public school - and he spies a pretty girl across the way - he impulsively decides to form a band. “Sing Street” follows the adventures of Conor as he hustles to turn a bunch of merry misfits into a bona fide group, achieve local fame (if not fortune) and maybe, just maybe, get the girl.
With a formula as tried-and-true as this one, it’s crucial that the characters inhabiting it be both authentic and novel. Carney has hit the jackpot with Walsh-Peelo, who brings soulful innocence and nascent sex appeal to a shy kid who’s discovering his inner rock star. Lucy Boynton, who plays Conor’s unattainable love interest, Raphina, delivers an equally accomplished portrayal of a wounded, secretly innocent girl masquerading as a tough chick with teased hair and jungle-red lipstick.
“Sing Street” has a great deal of fun with Raphina’s changing looks, as well as Conor’s endless experiments with his own persona, whether he’s copying Nick Rhodes’s eye makeup or hairstyles from the Cure. But Carney is careful to avoid pastiche for its own sake. Underneath the in-jokes and playful musical interludes - including songwriting sessions Conor conducts at a bandmate’s house overrun with pet rabbits - the pain of bullied, abused and misunderstood teenagers grappling with divorce, abuse, neglect and blinkered prospects is always gently palpable.
Sadly, Conor’s collaboration with his co-writer Eamon (Mark McKenna) is disappointingly perfunctory. And although “Sing Street” seems to have been reverse-engineered in order to be called “charming” in reviews, it has its decidedly un-charming moments, such as when the band’s pint-size manager (Ben Carolan) makes an offensive quip about all black people being able to play music, then carefully enunciates his words to a black character he assumes doesn’t speak English.
Thankfully, such tone-deaf moments are rare in “Sing Street,” which offers filmgoers a coming-of-age portrait that is both endearing and admirably free of cheap sentiment. A scene late in the film, when Conor indulges in a fantasy performance at a high school dance, unspools with contagious exuberance that feels fully earned.
Warm, ingratiating, with a beat you can dance to, “Sing Street” is a feel-good movie that never demands to be liked. Instead it asks, politely and irresistibly.
Rated: PG-13 for mature thematic elements including some bullying and a suggestive image, obscenity, drug material, teen smoking. Starring: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Aidan Gillen, Maria Doyle Kennedy. Director: John Carney. Running time: 105 minutes. Theater: Flicks.