As a musician and former member of Irish rock band the Frames, writer-director John Carney makes films that frequently focus on music, including "Once" and "Begin Again." But his latest work, "Sing Street," feels the most autobiographical, about a young man coming of age in Dublin in the 1980s, using the emotional, cathartic power of music to face the hardships of family, first love and school bullies.
The film takes its title from the name of the band formed by Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) dreamed up in an instant to impress a girl, Raphina (Lucy Boynton). That name comes from the brutal Christian Brothers school he attends, Synge Street (where Carney himself was schooled), ruled by abusive skinheads, and priests who are even worse.
The arbitrary rules give Conor something to rebel against, and with Raphina for a muse, and older brother Brandon (Jack Reynor) a mentor in all things rock 'n' roll, he and the band start to churn out pop hits (written for the film by Carney and Danny Wilson frontman Gary Clark). They cycle through a variety of influences, including Duran Duran, the Cure and Hall and Oates, and each perfect song will leave you jonesing for the official soundtrack.
Carney nails that "happy sad" sweet spot, a concept that Conor learns about from the wise-beyond-her-years Raphina. An aspiring model, as the layers of makeup come off, she grows younger and more vulnerable. She's a muse but one who's fully fleshed out as a person, with dreams and heartbreak and a sad life story of her own.
In his first film role, Walsh-Peelo deftly embodies Conor as both unassuming, naive student and bold, charismatic band frontman. Though the film addresses the harsh economic realities of the time, as it progresses, it more clearly becomes a fairy tale; an old memory seen through the haze of nostalgia, drunk on the dreams of those who didn't know anything but to dream. It's a sweetly funny, charming and poignant depiction of this very specific time in life — at once universal and specific — when anything seems possible. And with killer pop tunes to boot.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, including strong language and some bullying behavior, a suggestive image, drug material and teen smoking
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles; Arclight Hollywood and AMC Century City 15