J.K. Simmons and Julian Atocani Sanchez in A Boy Called Sailboat

A BOY CALLED SAILBOAT
**1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Cameron Nugent
STARS Noel Gugliemi, J.K. Simmons

There’s a classic Monty Python sketch in which everyone who hears a particular joke can’t stop laughing and soon drops dead. A Boy Called Sailboat takes a similar if far more benign approach to a song composed by the title character: Anyone who hears it can’t stop weeping or profusely expressing how it’s the greatest tune ever written.

Of course, viewers of A Boy Called Sailboat never get to hear the song, as the ample scenes in which young Sailboat (Julian Atocani Sanchez) warbles the tune while strumming his “little guitar” are shot in silence or play out with an instrumental version of a famous piece of music (for instance, “The House of the Rising Sun”) filling the soundtrack. Given its prominence in the plot, though, let’s just assume the song skewers closer to The Beatles or Bob Dylan than such all-time stinkers as, say, Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” or Magic!’s “Rude.”

In the film, the tune is written specifically for Sailboat’s grandmother (Rusalia Benavidez), who’s lying ill in a hospital bed. When he’s not busy working on the song, Sailboat spends quality time with his loving parents José (Noel Gugliemi) and Meyo (Elizabeth De Razzo) in their ramshackle house, an edifice so lopsided that a large pole is required on one side to prevent it from toppling over. Sailboat’s friends include Peeti (Keanu Wilson), a soccer-loving kid who’s unable to blink; Mandy (Zeyah Pearson), a precocious girl who insists that Sailboat’s song contains better beats than anything The Beach Boys ever put out; and Ernest (J.K. Simmons), a used-car salesman whose lot also houses — what else? — a sailboat.

Written and directed by Australian filmmaker Cameron Nugent, A Boy Called Sailboat is the type of film that’s best described as “indie quirk.” Every nanosecond is infused with eccentricity and quaintness — so much so, that genuine emotions are often left gasping for air. The film’s gentle nature counts for much, but it’s often difficult to get too involved in the proceedings when everything is played at such a fanciful pitch.

What largely aids the film is the performance by Gugliemi, who’s perfect as the child’s gruff but empathic father. One of the film’s best scenes is an early one, as José deals with a boy who bullied his son by going to the source: the boy’s easily intimidated dad. Sanchez is also effective, as he avoids the aura of self-awareness and self-importance that often derails the efforts of child actors. As for the name actors in the cast, Jake Busey is spectacularly unfunny as Sailboat’s goofball of a teacher while Simmons’ total screen time falls well shy of 10 minutes.

A Boy Called Sailboat is never less than likable, and its message of music uniting the world is one that never grows old or irrelevant. But a little more variance in its beats might have prevented it from settling into a well-worn groove of unrelenting whimsy.

(A Boy Called Sailboat debuts today on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and other platforms. It is also available on DVD.)

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