Monday, April 8, 2013

The Sapphires

Alternate Title:  Soul Sisters

One sentence synopsis:   Four Australian Aboriginal women form a soul group in the late 1960s to entertain the American troops in Vietnam.

Things Havoc liked:  It only takes one Doldrums season to make one reconsider the virtue of this weekly-film project, and I've now been through three. Each one had its hidden gems, but was mostly characterized by a flood of mediocrity, and films that ranged from barely tolerable to outright atrocious. Two years ago it was Tron: Legacy, last year Red Tails, and this year a slew of consistently boring, plotless, pointless films in endless succession. I knew when I started this that there'd be times when I had to drag myself to the movie theatre to see something I had no interest in watching, but I wasn't aware of how extended these times might become. And with little worth seeing on the horizon, even in indie cinemas, I have more than once considered just throwing the towel in rather than waste my time and money on a movie without hope of being any good, just so that I can come back here and inform you all that yes, Teenager Holocaust 7 is in fact exactly what you think it is.

But then I run into something like the Sapphires.

Set in the dusty outback of 1960s Australia, the Sapphires opens the film up with a stark recitation of the facts of life for Aboriginals in Australia up through the 1970s, covering such topics as the Stolen Generation, and the laws, then still on the books, that identified them as not human but "flora or fauna". And yet while the movie contains these subjects, it is not about them, insofar as the lives of the four women who form 80% of the main cast also contain these subjects, but are not comprised entirely of them. All four girls stand out individually in their roles, particularly Shari Sebbens' Kay, a light-skinned girl taken by the Australian government to live with a white family as part of the policies of the time, and Deborah Mailman's Gail, the self-appointed matriarch of the group, entirely uninterested in the posturing of those around her, perhaps to an unhealthy degree. All four women are excellent, lending their characters believable patinas as they butt heads with their Irish manager, Dave (Chris O'Dowd). Dave is a wreck, inept at best and usually drunk, but just barely competent enough to provide real help as the girls switch from Country to Soul music and refine their act into something bankable. He's also, crucially, an outsider to the world the women inhabit, enabling him to be both a window for the audience into what is going on (the movie does not generally pause to explain things otherwise), as well as a catalyst for illustrating a few uncomfortable truths from the women themselves.

If the above sounds like a particularly bad issue movie, then you'll simply have to take my word that it's anything but. For one thing, the Sapphires is wickedly funny, particularly in the early half of the film as Dave tries to forge the group into something approximating a real soul band. The dialogue is witty and real, even during bouts of exposition, all of it flowing naturally, like something real people would actually say. Given the subject matter on offer, which starts with racism and gets more serious from there, this is an almost unheard of achievement, as most films on such subjects either turn into bitter polemics or high-concept speeches on the need for tolerance. This movie manages to make the plights of our main characters fully real, all without hand-wringing and finger-pointing. The Aboriginal characters beyond the four women are not the "wise spirit people" of many misguided anti-racism films, but people, like any other. Rare indeed is the movie that manages to make everyone seem reasonable without falling into any of these traps. Rarer still is one that does so while also being hilarious.

Things Havoc disliked: Some of the secondary characters, the nightclub promoter in Saigon, the racist white Australians at the beginning of the film, and many of the American soldiers the group encounters along the way, are not drawn quite as well, failing the eye-test for whether a character is a real character or a cardboard stand-in for what the filmmakers thought they needed at that moment. As these are tertiary characters (at best), this matters little, but it does lead to a few issues of logic and plot. Why, for instance, does the promoter insist on sending the girls unescorted through the wilds of Vietnam to get to a special show? If the show is that important, surely an escort would be called for, especially given how easily the girls got one when they were still lowly unknowns.

Final thoughts:    Yeah, I'm really reaching with this one for bad stuff to say, and there's a reason for it. The Sapphires is one of the best films I've seen since the Oscar Season opened last year, a gem of a comedy that's more real than 99% of the films made about this or any similarly touchy subject. Funny, well-written, entertaining, and otherwise brilliantly put together, this film is a gem, especially given when it came out. In a season where the highest-grossing film is the Evil Dead remake (we'll get to that), what more can you really ask for?

Final Score:  8.5/10

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