Starring Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell,Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Robin Williams
Directed by Kirsten Sheridan
Because female directors are rare creatures in Hollywood, it's a delight to find one with as much talent and promise as Kirsten Sheridan displays in her tender, enchanting August Rush, an urban fable of family lost and gifts found.
Sheridan has a bit of an unfair advantage. Her father is Jim Sheridan, whose films My Left Foot and In America burst with humanism and celebrate individuality. Now it's clear Kirsten has inherited that same spirit, for this is a joyful movie — so joyful, in fact, that its soul triumphs over its many flaws. It's easy, perhaps, to forgive such weaknesses if August is experienced as intended — as a modern fairy tale.
If you can overlook the deep implausibility of the story, it becomes easy to embrace.
Evan Taylor is an 11-year-old boy lost but supremely centered. Stuck in an orphanage where other boys deride him as a "freak," he refuses to stop believing that his parents want him, that maybe they're just lost and haven't been able to find him. Though he's never touched an instrument, he lives and breathes music, hears it "in the air, in the light," in everything all around him. He believes music connects him to his parents. Then one day he sets out to find them, an odyssey to New York City and all the strange, dark magic of that 21st-century Oz.
Among the several enthralling things about August is how Sheridan captures the symphony of the city: the rhythm and the groove of rattling subway trains and honking taxi horns and surging mobs of pedestrians and even plastic bags whipped by a breeze. Her depiction of New York might be the loveliest I've ever seen on film, a visually and aurally melodic valentine to its hustle and bustle.
But none of that would have mattered if she hadn't found the right actor to play Evan. The movie rests on that character's slender and sensitive shoulders. This is one of the more demanding child roles in recent memory. Sheridan cast Freddie Highmore precisely for the very reason I first noticed him: He was able to hold his own with Johnny Depp in that lovely scene on the park bench toward the end of Finding Neverland. Though Highmore is English and Evan is American, the actor, 14 when the film was shot last year, is able to pull it off. Not just the accent — which is astonishing — but Evan's personality as well, with all his off-kilter confidence, pre-adolescent artlessness, and supreme joy in the music he hears.
Highmore is a wonder.
The rest of the cast strikes a perfect balance between magic and groundedness. Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Evan's parents share their own interrupted love story. It's something out of Cinderella, only 21st-century style. They're both musicians. After a single romantic night at the ball, they lose track of more than their son and each other. They lose their music, too.
They find it again, of course, as they must also find the son they never knew they had, which becomes a gentle but dynamic ode to the power of love and of family (how Mom could not know she has a child is one of those nagging implausibilities, but go with it).
The necessary bit of fairy tale menace comes from Robin Williams as the Fagin-like presence in Evan's life, the spirit-guide who first recognizes his talent (and gives him the nom de musique "August Rush"). He's also the threat that endangers the full expression of that talent.
Is it all ridiculously improbable? Sure it is. But so is Cinderella and all the stories we love. All's well that ends well. And this one ends well, too.