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Tuesday
Jan152019

A BOY CALLED SAILBOAT

Stars: Julian Atocani Sanchez, Noel Gugliemi, Elizabeth De Razzo, Jake Busey, Keanu Wilson, Rusalia Benavidez, Zeyah Pearson, Lew Temple, Patricia Kalis and J.K. Simmons.
Writer/Director: Cameron Nugent

Rating: ★★★★

Like his eponymous ukulele-wielding protagonist, writer-director Cameron Nugent strikes the perfect chord with his feature-length debut, A Boy Called Sailboat. An understated, utterly beguiling dose of doe-eyed magic-realism, the Australian’s fanciful but sure-footed foray into one Hispanic family’s life in the U.S. south-west could not be more timely; in telling one small story, A Boy Called Sailboat also celebrates the common humanity that binds diverse communities.

Few depictions of life’s base pleasures – food, music, family and love – play out with such sweet-natured resonance as in Nugent’s narrative. The premise, like the lives led by the humans at its core, is simple; a pre-teen boy (the wonderful Julian Atocani Sanchez), blessed with both a vivid imagination and strongly-defined sense of family, stumbles on a small, discarded guitar and decides to teach himself to play, so that one day he may sing a self-penned song to his ailing ‘abuela’ (Rusalia Benavidez).

However, the lives of all around him – father José (Noel Gugliemi), mother Meyo (Elizabeth De Razzo), best friend Peeti (Keanu Wilson), school crush Mandy (Zeyah Pearson), teacher Bing (Jake Busey), a local DJ (Lew Temple) and ultimately the entire population of his New Mexico suburb – are given greater profundity when they hear Sailboat play his uke and sing his song, a composition that renders anyone who hears it emotionally reborn. In a bold and effective device, every time the boy sings Nugent’s screen goes silent but for a single chord, thereby forcing his audience to bring their own definition of what most deeply stirs their soul.

A Boy Called Sailboat has many idiosyncratic beats and skewed nuances, the kind that need a strongly-defined real-world emotional connection to work. Ten minutes in, Nugent has filled his film with so many small, strange tics (a yacht being towed in the desert; a leaning home held upright by a single beam; a meatballs-only nightly meal; a soccer-obsessed kid who holsters an eye dropper) there is the very real threat that his vision will die the death of a thousand quirks.

Thankfully, Nugent proves himself to be a master of meaningful whimsy, in much the same way as Wes Anderson (a clear inspiration, especially his 2012 triumph, Moonrise Kingdom) or early Tim Burton (circa 1990s Edward Scissorhands). All his actors are attuned to his nuanced vision, especially a cameoing J.K. Simmons (pictured, above) as used-car salesman/life-coach Ernest; in one wonderful sequence, Nugent skillfully edits a series of reveals as the Oscar-winning actor monologues some life advice to young Sailboat, while the kid stares transfixed at…a sailboat.

Talent extends behind the camera, too, not only in the form of DOP John Garrett’s skill with sparse, hot location work. The production’s collaboration with classical guitarists Leonard and Slava Grigoryan has provided a soundtrack of wistful, lovely melodies, many traditional sea-faring tunes (‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’; ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’) in line with Sailboat’s oceanic obsession. All contributors reinforce the filmmaker’s remarkably assured stewardship, resulting in surely the most impressive calling-card film in recent memory.

      

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