Magazine | June 13, 2016, Issue

Youthful Longings

If I were running a film festival on the social history of the 20th century (I know, I know, the lines would be around the block), I would pair Brooklyn, last year’s widely praised adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel about an Irish immigrant girl in 1950s New York, with Sing Street, John Carney’s new bildungsroman about a teen rock band in 1980s Dublin.

In certain ways these movies tell similar stories: There’s youthful romance, a significant older sibling, the urge to escape Ireland for the bright lights and big city, even a crucial dance in a church hall with watchful clerics circling.

But Brooklyn is set in an intact social order, in which the benevolence of adults and their institutions is mostly taken for granted, convention is something to be strained against but also a form of protection, and even acts of boldness and adventure — in the heroine’s case, marrying an Italian and staying in America — tend to have conservative aspirations at their heart.

Sing Street, set 30 years onward, takes place in the same sort of milieu — Irish, Catholic, middle-class — except now the social order is collapsing, adult protectiveness has disappeared, and what remains of authority is basically malignant.

In Brooklyn, the heroine has a kindly widowed mother who hangs on her daughter’s every letter; in Sing Street, the hero’s parents are squabbling their way to divorce and can’t spare their kids more than cursory attention. In Brooklyn, the priest is a benevolent, protective character; in Sing Street, the man in the collar is a petty tyrant and possibly a pederast. In Brooklyn, there’s a whole social support system set up for young people who want to emigrate from Ireland; in Sing Street, the kids are cut adrift and trying to figure out how to do it on their own. In Brooklyn, the vision of the good life the protagonist reaches for involves a bookkeeping job and a man who loves the Brooklyn Dodgers; in Sing Street, it involves becoming a rock star.

What makes the movies a good pairing is that you can watch them back to back and end up identifying with both aspirations — because in their respective contexts, both make sense. And taken together, the two films suggest a theory about the nature of cultural revolution that’s a valuable counterpoint to every “kids these days” complaint: A social order doesn’t fail when the kids revolt; it fails when the kids realize that their elders have already given up on it.

That lesson is imparted to Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) early in Sing Street, when his parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) take a break from fighting to announce that they’re switching him from a Jesuit school to the one run by the Christian Brothers at Synge Street — a lower-class sort of place, in which the kids mock his diction, a skinhead bullies him, and the martinet Brother-headmaster (Don Wycherley) goes to war with him because his shoes are brown instead of black.

Into this purgatory comes a glimpse of heaven — a slightly older beauty named Raphina (Lucy Boynton), whom Conor makes bold to approach with the pretense of seeking models for a music video his band is making. No such band exists, which means that he has to form one, with the help of a motley crew of classmates (there’s a hint of Richard Linklater’s School of Rock in the proceedings), the counsel of his long-haired college-dropout older brother (Jack Reynor, an Irish Chris Pratt), and the inspiration supplied by the Cure, Joe Jackson, Depeche Mode, Hall and Oates, and many more.

Their band is quickly better than a strict realism would lead one to expect, and Raphina — herself basically orphaned, living in a girls’ home whose door is never answered by an adult (again, a contrast with the benevolent boarding house in Brooklyn) — passes from amused participation to something more. (Conor’s fumbling advances are expertly staged, and inspired a wince of recognition in this moviegoer.) But she has another iron in the fire, an older boyfriend with a car. And although this bounder has weaknesses, like a love of Genesis (“No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins,” Conor’s brother reassures him), he’s promised to take her to London, which is a hard offer for a teenager to match.

But as the story unspools, as things crumble further for Conor’s family, and as the headmaster’s tyranny turns more malign, the idea of simply escaping becomes more plausible — the rocker and his model girlfriend, headed out into the unknown.

Before that very post-1960s fantasy unfurls itself, though, we get a glimpse of a strikingly different one. Conor’s band sets out to stage a music video in the style of an American high-school prom, and in the dreamscape of his imagination it turns into a Back to the Future–esque set piece, in which Raphina isn’t the only star: His parents show up, dancing and happy and in love, and even the headmaster is reborn as a benevolent figure, backflipping and suddenly benign.

That dream dissipates; the grim reality returns. But its appearance is a reminder that every youthful fantasy is conditional, and that dreams of revolution flourish when more basic human goods seem unrealistic, or fraudulent, or simply out of reach.

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