November 26, 2007

August Rush

Most critics hated August Rush, and the few who liked it were almost apologetic in their praise. Well, I liked it and I'm not apologizing for it. I loved it when my mother brought this kind of movie home from the video store when I was growing up. It's the kind of wholesome movie she was happy to have me love. And to my surprise, and great relief, it's the kind of movie I'm still able to love: a truly stirring fable.

The film's only weakness is the necessary back story; the cookie cutter drama and PG excuse feels a little too stale. When we meet August Rush at an orphanage in what appears to be western New York, he's known as Evan Taylor. The world sings to him in a language that only he can seem to hear, with a melody that connects him to the parents he never knew.

The other orphans mock him for believing his parents will come for him, but lengthy flashbacks confirm August's intuition. Fate, Van Morrison and a serendipitous harmonica-playing street performer had brought his classical cellist mother and indie rocker father together. A complicated series of events pulled them apart and left them ignorant of their son's existence.

At the orphanage, August is oblivious to neither the bullies' opinions nor their intentions; he's simply blessed with enough self-assurance to remain unfazed. And like any miracle of goodness who lights up a bad situation, young August attracts supporters who do resent him. August's bunkmate volunteers the lies that August won't say to protect him from the bullies' beatings. He has largely given up on his own chances, but senses and appreciates that August is destined for something greater. Even the child services agent that interviews August takes a liking to him and becomes a valuable advocate in the events to come.

August ultimately takes matters into his own hands. The movie really begins with him walking along cold winter roads toward the Thruway as the power lines hum him a tune. A trucker picks him up and brings him all the way to Manhattan, where the man from child services might know what to do with him. August Rush quickly becomes Oliver Twist, just sprung from the work houses. The less-than-seedy underbelly of the film's fairy tale New York is his 1830's London.

The director, Kirsten Sheridan, was one of the two daughters fictionalized in his father's terrific autobiographical New York fable, In America. Her introduction to New York feels more authentic: an overwhelming onslaught of sights, sounds, sensations. August, who hears music in everything, becomes lost in it until a car strikes him and brings him back to reality. Even in her glossy take on New York, it seems some facts of urban life are just too blindingly obvious. A certain lyricism develops in the way she takes August from place to place along the journey, paralleling his comfort level with the city as it quickly grows.

A whisper of music leads him to a black street musician roughly his age who roughly approximates the Artful Dodger from Dickens's tale. A hot pizza convinces the young musician to let August tag along back to the abandoned theater he calls home.

There we meet Wizard, the manager of a whole army of young street musicians. He feels the music in his soul too, and cares for many young boys who would not be cared for otherwise. But like Fagin, the Oliver Twist character on whom he is obviously based, it is much easier to join Wizard's ranks than it is to escape.

Robin Williams's performance of the character is challenging. By employing on the body language and gentle voice that made him so endearing in films like Dead Poets Society and Patch Adams, it's hard not to warm up to his character. The scene where he names August Rush is triumphant, even. The use of his family friendly persona makes it more shocking than it should be when he starts to more sharply exert his crass claim over August's talent and soul. Wizard is the most complex character in the film, a pimp that manages musical talent instead of sexual liaisons.

August's continued survival and well being amongst nefarious people is the conceit of the film. That isn't to say Sheridan's New York is free of problems. It just that the mechanisms by which we deal with those problems are optimistically showcased working at their best. A particularly poignant sequence comes when August finds his way into a black church during choir practice. The gospel choir is full of the products of broken families, and they're singing about their common threads of misfortune. August finds refuge in their shared sadness just like they do.

The progression of August's musical talent is not as flimsily conceived as I thought it would be. He is presented as a genius, to be sure, but he never simply picks up a new instrument and plays. Freddie Highmore does a great job with his face when August watches other musicians even before he starts to play. You can almost see the gears breaking it all down in his head.

When he finally gets his hands on a guitar, he meticulously fiddles with each component and listening to how it affects the sound. A little girl at the church has to teach him the scales on sheet music before he can put the song that is all around down on paper. The pastor at the church gets him enrolled in formal study at Juilliard. People aren't as lucky as August in real life, but I could believe that a true prodigy in August's situation given the same improbably opportunities could become so accomplished. The fairy tale is able to forgive what the circumstances don't quite account for.

If you've read Oliver Twist, the plot won't be much of a surprise to you. If you haven't the plot still probably won't be much of a surprise to you, especially after reading this review. Go anyway. The film has the most unabashedly heartfelt climax you'll see this year, matched with one of the most rousing and meticulous scores I've ever heard. August Rush is a protagonist worth cheering for. (***½)


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