feel-goodest movie ever (The Sapphires review)

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The Sapphires green light Jessica Mauboy Miranda Tapsell Deborah Mailman Shari Sebbens

I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

You’ve seen this story before, but never pulled off with so much joie de vivre. Three musical sisters and their cousin travel from the Australian Outback to Vietnam… in 1968, when girl singing groups were the hot thing and there were soldiers in the jungle who needed to be entertained in between getting shot at. Their journey is emotional as well as physical, naturally, in ways neither they nor we could have expected, as they leave behind a culture where they face constant, obnoxious, in-your-face racism — they’re Aborigines, and very much hated for the color of their skin and a perceived lack of content to their character — and arrive in a place crammed with gorgeous men in uniform, many of them not white — “I’ve never seen so many black men in one place,” the cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), sighs when they enter the Saigon nightclub that is their first venue — yet also apparently accepted without comment by their white compatriots.

For a familiar (not-quite) rags to (not-quite) riches story, one that treads a simple path of easy cinematic joys, there is nevertheless much to cheer here, even aside from the effortless charm of the whole endeavor. Australian TV director Wayne Blair is working from a script from Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson, based on Briggs’s mother’s true story, and this is very obviously not a Hollywood production, from the down-to-earth beauty of the cast — there’s a not a plastic Barbie among them — to the refreshing female-friendly tone of the sexuality, which has nary a whiff of shame or false modesty about it. (The baby, Julie [Jessica Mauboy] has a baby of her own, and no one seems to think there’s anything wrong with this, and the middle “problem” child, Cynthia [Miranda Tapsell], is as wonderfully, freely randy as you’d expect a young man of her age to be.) But the affecting soul of the film belongs jointly to Deborah Mailman (Rabbit-Proof Fence) as Gail, the eldest sister, and Chris O’Dowd (Friends with Kids, Bridesmaids) as Dave, their accidental new manager: we can see where their relationship is going from the moment they meet — but the pleasure in watching them is that they’ve seen it, too. And O’Dowd, who plays Dave like he’s a refugee from The Commitments, brings just the right touch of ironic wit to the whole shebang, keeps it from taking itself too seriously… so that when moments of seriousness suddenly sneak up on us, they land all the harder.

I loved this flick when I saw it at the London Film Festival last autumn, and I loved it even more when I watched it again on DVD. This may be the purest, most delightful example of the feel-good film I’ve ever seen: funny but never cartoonish, touching but never heavy, sweet without being saccharine, and the music is toe-tapping great. Don’t miss it.

Why did Anchor Bay dick-wash and whitewash the Region 1 DVD cover? We’re talking about that here.

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Tue, Apr 16, 2013 11:57pm

I’ve loved Chris O’Dowd since Bridesmaids. It sounds like a fun flick and I was delighted to hear it was based on a true story.

Wed, Apr 17, 2013 4:03am

I absolutely adored this movie for the exact same reason: it’s pure joy. Wonderful camaraderie between the actresses; fantastic tunes; and just a terrific story.

I went into it knowing virtually nothing about it, and when I saw that it starred four female leads who weren’t Barbie dolls and none of whom were raped, killed, or otherwise victimized, I knew this wasn’t a Hollywood film.

Wed, Apr 17, 2013 10:02am

It’ll be interesting to see if this one can carve itself a market… of course, if it does, the inevitable imitators will star four Barbies who get raped and murdered, but hey.

Mon, Apr 29, 2013 1:47pm

This movie was charming, despite heavy (and necessary) doses of ’60s-era racism and sexism. The whole cast is great. Loved the girl’s mother (and, in one case, aunt) too. Chris O’Dowd is fun as always, though he sounded curious American when he got drunk in Vietnam. I saw it with a small audience of people who looked to be mostly older than me, which was sad. It would be good for younger people to see it. Besides, the music was wonderful.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  LaurieMann
Tue, Jul 30, 2013 2:25pm

Is there something about American accents and Irish accents that makes them sound alike? I don’t hear it myself, but more than once here in London I’ve been mistaken for Irish, based solely on my accent, which is nothing like an Irish accent. At all.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Tue, Jul 30, 2013 2:29pm

That’s not a connection I’ve ever noticed (though a lot of Americans think my accent is Australian on first hearing me, though it was mostly formed in southern England).

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  RogerBW
Thu, Aug 01, 2013 10:17am

I’ve been mistaken for English by American Southerners, which is even more hilarious than being mistaken for Irish in England.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Aug 01, 2013 3:22pm

“Even more hilarious” because some southern US accents are actually closer to pre-Hannover English accents than current toff accents are? (IE: South Carolina) Or certainly than current NYC accents?