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Sing Street is a return to form for the director of Once

In a film festival that spotlights slow death by cancer, the gory murder of cute dogs, and a tragedy so stomach-twisting I’ll spare you the recap, Sing Street, the new musical comedy from Once director John Carney, is a breath of fresh Irish air. It’s the closest the director has come to recapturing the charm and naked emotional core of his debut, and it’s a welcome return.

Of course, Carney does much of this by borrowing heavily from his own film. I say this with love, sincerity, and respect: Sing Street is Once: Kidz Bop Edition. The big beats are much the same: the relationship of a musician and a young woman is threatened by one of them packing up for a new life in London. An emotional turn hinges on the leading woman, alone at night, absorbing a personal song through her goofy headphones. There’s a stripped-down song recorded into a home cassette player, and even a Hoover vacuum sucker. Perhaps enough time has passed that all of it works almost just as well.

Sing Street is Once: Kidz Bop Edition

Dublin high schooler Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is moved to an affordable Catholic school as his parents’ finances and marriage fall apart. Just off the schoolyard, he meets mysterious older girl Raphina. She has grand plans to run away to London with her grown-up boyfriend and pursue a modeling career. High on the virile lyrics of Duran Duran, Conor asks Raphina to model for his band’s music video.

Of course, the problem is that Conor doesn’t actually have a band. Cue the Ocean’s Eleven-esque montage as he assembles a crew of odd duck cohorts. Five musicians and a manager fall into place, then get cracking on the real work: picking a cool band name. They go with Sing Street, a play on Synge Street, that road the boys take to school. ("But I thought the streets have no name in Dublin?" you ask. I know. I had this question, too.)

In Sing Street’s Dublin, music is a magical current that imbues young people with special powers. Watching music videos transforms teens into expert musicians; playing music grants them confidence to confront school bullies and cruel headmasters; listening to music inspires them to take life-changing leaps of faith. "Adulthood is the death of music and all of its powers," screams the film. "So act now!"

Like a good pop-rock producer, Sing Street peaks with formulaic choruses buttressed by loud, bold emotional riffs. The couple’s scenes light up long dormant corners of the viewer’s brain where love, ambition, and fear meet. It transports you to that awkward / thrilling moment in adolescence when everything — good and bad — feels possible. Carney’s camera has a habit of locking onto Conor and Raphina’s features, more lustful for their youth than the young actors themselves.

Carney’s counting on your own personal nostalgia for your adolescent years to fill in the blanks, and Conor’s relationships with his bandmates are no less heart-melting. Older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor, who needs a show or movie or anything that isn’t a Transformers sequel, stat) provides musical and emotional guidance for his aspiring rocking sibling. Musical savant Eamon (Mark McKenna) is the John to Conor’s Paul, and scenes in which the two craft their band’s songs play like charming, amateur therapy sessions for boys with hearts ready to burst.

Someone give Jack Reynor a TV show

In short time, Conor becomes Cosmo (his Raphina-given rock name), and his videos, songs, and wardrobe begin to echo the bands he so lovingly copies. We get the broad-rimmed hats and shades of Duran Duran and the black duds and charcoal eyeliner of The Cure. The homages are fitting in a movie that is something of an homage itself; Carney’s acute ear for teenage language and Ducky-esque romantic pining call to mind an Irish John Hughes movie. Unfortunately, so do the handful of gay jokes and slurs, and an unearned bit in which the band recruits a black teenager because of his race. (The kid fades into the role of "just another band member.") The music videos that punctuate the plot, shot on the boys’ 1980s home camcorder, play like Michel Gondry with restraint.

Carney, who has carved a niche as the rare musical film director, never lets the homages conceal his own voice. But where Once strikes a melancholy note, Sing Street trills with electric hope, the kind embodied by its naive teenage heroes. It’s filled with moments Conor calls "happy / sad," including a Kleenex-friendly conclusion, but it’s all ultimately smooth and intoxicating. If Once was a lo-fi crowd pleaser, Sing Street is a Dolby surround-sound dopamine rush.