April 3 2013 03:14 PM

San Diego Film Festival opening-night movie lands in theaters

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The soulful Chris O’Dowd
Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

The Irish comic actor Chris O'Dowd, who became known to American audiences when he played the love interest opposite Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, had quite a showing at last year's San Diego Film Festival. He appeared in two films, playing Charlie Hunnam's ne'erdo-well brother in 3, 2, 1... Frankie Go Boom and a ne'er-do-well Irish musician in the fest's opening-night movie, The Sapphires, which opens Friday, April 5, at Hillcrest Cinemas.

The two roles are sort of similar—O'Dowd's done well for himself playing moderately attractive geeks who eventually find their way in the world, and it's to his credit that he's managed to spin this into some leading-man success. And though these two parts have some things in common, the two films are very different. The Sapphires is burdened with clichés and doesn't break much new ground, but it's sweet and sincere, co-written by the sons of one of the women whose story is presented on screen.

The Sapphires were a girl group composed of four young Aboriginal women who traveled to Vietnam in the late 1960s to entertain American troops with Motown songs. In the film, the group starts as a trio of sisters. There's Gail (Deborah Mailman), the oldest, and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), the wild one, and always tagging along with them is Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the youngest sister, who already has a child but also has the best voice. They're talented singers, desperate to get out of their small Australian hometown, and when they meet drunken Irish musician Dave Lovelace (O'Dowd) at a local music competition, he agrees to manage them and to arrange for a USO audition in the big city.

It's in that city where Kay (Shari Sebbens) lives, the light-skinned cousin they haven't seen since she was snatched away by authorities during the time of the Stolen Generation. There's bad blood between Kay and Gail, because Kay now identifies as a white girl. That sounds heavy, and The Sapphires touches on issues of race, but it does so in a fairly safe, lightweight way, mostly because it's a fairly safe, lightweight film. Regardless, a quick montage prepares them for their audition, and the next thing you know, it's good morning Vietnam for all five.

The good news is that The Sapphires are a hit in Vietnam, and the girls—who've been treated so poorly down under—are now stars and have all kinds of men who want to get with them all the time. Kay finds her own issues aren't so black-and-white when she meets Robby (Tory Kittles), an African-American medic who quickly catches her eye. But Vietnam is also kind of a bummer, mostly because it's, well, Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and the people they're singing to one day could be blown up the next.

All of these issues—war, violence, racism and infidelity, too—are merely touched upon, designed not to distract from the drama that takes place between four women and their manager. It's all set in a very PG-13 environment, and though there's a bit of violence toward the very end, the end is never truly in doubt. Things are going to wind up OK: Kay's going to accept that she's black, and Dave and Gail will end up together, once he quits drinking and putting everyone's lives in danger because he's an idiot.

Based on a stage play of the same title, The Sapphires is harmless entertainment, blessed with a cast interesting enough to make up for the small budget and uninventive script. Director Wayne Blair's wisest move was casting O'Dowd, who's able to hold together not just the girl group, but also the entire film, and inject it with a little bit of heart and, for a white guy, a lot of soul.


Write to anders@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. You can follow Anders on Twitter at @anderswright.

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