Sing Street is everything a coming-of-age film ought to be but rarely is: tense and dramatic, but ultimately uplifting, with true and valuable life lessons.
If you don’t commonly keep up with the indie world, you may not have heard of this film. It’s okay if you haven’t. It’s an Irish film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and it only saw a limited release in the United States. That’s something of a shame, because it’s one of the most relatable indie films I’ve seen in recent years. Set in 1985 Dublin, Sing Street is a musical-comedy-drama that follows Conor, a fifteen-year-old boy who has, all things considered, a pretty terrible life. His parents scream at each other every night, he’s a victim of bullying at school, he has no friends in said school, his family is poor, and his deadbeat brother is the only one who pays him the least bit of attention. In every measurement that we typically use to measure these things, Conor’s life sucks.
In most other films, this would be where the music enters, but this isn’t like most films. You see, while Conor likes to write lyrics, and probably does use that as a type of therapy, he doesn’t actually know very much about music. He couldn’t tell you anything about the best artists or even genres, save for what he overhears his brother Brendan talking about. It’s not until he starts talking to a beautiful girl after school, who says she’s a model, that he gets the idea for a band. Because bands needs models for their videos.
Thankfully, Conor has just made his first friend at school, Darren. And Darren knows a guy. That guy might be a rabbit-obsessed oddball named Eaton, but Eaton can play anything that makes noise and beggars can’t be choosers. One montage later, and they have a band. Thus, Conor’s highly ambitious journey to get the girl appears to be off to a very good start.
In fact, their first video recording goes extraordinarily well. Even the ever-criticizing Brendan, when he sees the video, admits that the concept has potential. As things progress, however, and Conor gets more into his music and more counter-cultural, things seem to get progressively worse for him. In addition to bullying from other kids, he has to worry about bullying from the administration. Things get even worse at home. He isn’t doing well in school. We’re reminded once again that his life really sucks.
But that’s when some interesting things happen with the film. There are some valuable lessons that start to play out. Perhaps one of the most meaningful is when Raphina (the love interest) tells Conor that he needs to learn to be “Happy Sad.” This, as Conor explains to his bewildered friends, means accepting the bad circumstances in life, and doing your best to deal with them and find the good things in life, too. Dwell on and chase after the good, rather than dwelling on the bad. It was hard in watching this part of the film not to think of Philippians, how Paul encourages the Philippians to have joy, how some variant of the word “joy” is used 15 times in just 4 short chapters. There’s a lot to be said for this, especially being in the aftermath of a frustrating U.S. political season.
Brendan ends up shining too, in his own way. While Conor’s parents are increasingly revealed as unapologetically selfish people, Brendan and Conor’s relationship, while strained and not terribly close, does ultimately reveal that they care about each other. That’s not the core of the film; the core of the film is primarily how Conor deals with bad life circumstances, and secondarily his relationship with Rephina. But, his relationship with Brendan gives the film life and color. It’s authentic, flawed, and ultimately a great piece of character development. And the way that the film ends, particularly as it relates to these two characters, shows a subtle yet biblical view of love and family – to put another’s needs above your own.
This movie would be worth a watch just for the music. If you have any affection at all for ’80s rock/pop, this is a great flick. The songwriting scenes are authentic and memorable, and the way Conor expresses himself through his lyrics feels genuine without straying too far into the unbearably cheesy. But more than that, the film is a good character study, examining the difficult situations in a boy’s life, and how he manages to find joy despite that. We would attribute the ability of that to God, and while that step is not taken, the inclination to dwell on the positive is certainly something Christians can learn from.
Sing Street is an occasionally rough work, with a smattering of profanity (including one f-word), and dialogue that feels stilted at times. It’s also worth mentioning that, at choice moments, the film’s narrative endorses a rebellious attitude towards authority. I can’t condone those attitudes, but the film’s positives ultimately outshine its negatives.