This review was written for the theatrical release of "August Rush."
Magical realism meets a modern-day Oliver Twist in "August Rush," an often charming urban fantasy that teeters perilously on the brink of preciousness but never quite topples over. It's a tightrope act from the first frame, but Kirsten Sheridan in her second outing as a director -- 2001's "Disco Pigs" was her first -- infuses her film with rapturous music and imagery. The story is about musicians and how music connects people, so the movie's score and songs, created by composers Mark Mancina and Hans Zimmer, give poetic whimsy to an implausible tale.
Warner Bros. will rely on the cast to help sell this movie. Freddie Highmore again demonstrates he is one of the industry's top child actors, while Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers continue to climb to stardom in roles that demand the utmost sensitivity. The film should attract a loyal following, but critics will be mixed.
"August" adopts the structure of "Oliver Twist" whereby an orphan runs away to New York and falls in with a Fagin-like character. Instead of a gang of young thieves, the "Wizard" (Robin Williams, doing his best with a poorly written role) operates a team of young musicians who live in an abandoned theater and play for money on street corners. Evan (Highmore), whom he renames August Rush, is a child prodigy whose skills reward him with a prime spot in Washington Square.
It is in Washington Square 11 years ago where Evan was conceived. In flashback, a young Irish guitarist-singer, Louis (Rhys Meyers), encounters a shy, young cellist, Lyla (Russell), on a rooftop overlooking the square. The two spend the night only to be torn apart by circumstances.
When the pregnant Lyla is hit by a car and gives birth prematurely, her father (William Sadler), mindful of her career, gives the infant up for adoption but tells his daughter that her baby died. Shattered, she loses interest in playing and relocates to Chicago, where she teaches music. Louis, too, gives up music, opting for a business career in San Francisco.
A kind social worker (Terrence Howard) urges Evan into family placement, but the boy never gives up hope of finding his parents. He believes he can reach out to them through music, that they can "hear" each other. His musical gifts explode when he comes to New York. Its sounds resonate in his head: In the whoosh of subway trains, noise from cars, thumps of a basketball and the clatter, hum and buzz of everyday life, he feels music flow through him.
When August wanders into a church, the pastor (Mykelti Williamson) is so impressed with the boy's organ composition that he brings the youngster to the Juilliard School of Music. In no time, he has composed a symphony. It will be played in Central Park, where Lyla is a featured cellist and Louis is nearby, reunited with his old band.
Clearly, the film does not work on any realistic level. "August" is driven by its music. From gospel and rock to classical and symphonic, music carries its characters and story ever forward to their destiny. John Mathieson's inspired cinematography turn contemporary Manhattan into a Dickensian world where an orphan might triumph and people feel the sound of healing music. And nearly stealing the film is young Jamia Simone Nash with her sassy line readings and astonishing voice.
Warner Bros. Pictures presents a Southpaw Entertainment production in association with CJ Entertainment
Director: Kirsten Sheridan
Screenwriters: Nick Castle, James V. Hart
Story by: Nick Castle, Paul Castro
Producer: Richard Barton Lewis
Executive producers: Robert Greenhut, Ralph Kamp, Louise Goodsill, Miky Lee, Lionel Wigram
Director of photography: John Mathieson
Production designer: Michael Shaw
Music: Mark Mancina
Costume designer: Frank Fleming
Editor: William Steinkamp
August Rush: Freddie Highmore
Lyla Novacek: Keri Russell
Louis Connelly: Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Richard Jeffries: Terrence Howard
Maxwell "Wizard" Wallace: Robin Williams
Thomas: William Sadler
Arthur: Leon Thomas III
Hope: Jamia Simone Nash
Running time -- 113 minutes
MPAA rating: PG