One day Sailboat (Julian Atocani Sanchez), a preternaturally gifted little Hispanic boy who lives in a rickety old desert shack literally propped up by a plank of wood, discovers a ukelele (or as he calls it: "little guitar") abandoned on a junk pile. Encouraged by his bald, tattooed, imposing but loving father (Noel Gugliemi) and kindly, soft-spoken, spicy meatball-obsessed mother (Elizabeth De Razzo) he rapidly develops a miraculous musical talent. When his "abuela" (grandmother) falls seriously ill Sailboat sets out to compose a song so beautiful it will restore her health. His song proves so potent it has a remarkable effect upon everyone he meets along a life-altering journey.
This bemusing but likable, whimsical fable marks the feature directorial debut of seasoned Australian actor Cameron Nugent. A staple of Aussie TV fare from Round the Twist to Blue Heelers (many of which also aired on British shores), Nugent here crafts something that on the surface almost skews close to a live-action Coco (2017). Nugent's self-consciously quirky filmmaking style also shares a poised artifice and stylized acting in common with the works of Wes Anderson with a dose of Jared Hess thrown in there. Yet one could also argue the film's style, tone and thematic preoccupations reflect the same beguiling, low-key, pastel-hued magical realism found in classic Mexican literature. Despite touching on race and social inequity in the American Midwest, A Boy Called Sailboat spins a tall tale more interested in poetry than social realism.
The plot interweaves two themes: music as a means of unlocking miracles and obsession. Almost every character in the film is obsessed with something. Whether it is Sailboat with honing his guitar skills to revive his abuela, his doting dad's obsession with painting horse murals all over their shack, his mother forever cooking delicious spicy meatballs, or his football-mad best friend Peeti (Keanu Wilson) who doesn’t let eye problems hinder his soccer dreams. Sailboat’s music breathes hope back into this quirky close-knit community as one by one everyone from his eccentric schoolteacher (a winningly weird Jake Busey) to a travelling car salesman (J.K. Simmons, providing the special guest star turn but with little impact on the actual plot) are awakened to his near-supernatural gifts.
Strangely the film never tries to sell viewers on Sailboat being a gifted musician. Whenever he plays Nugent cuts the audio to white noise, leaving viewers to judge by the other characters' stunned reactions that his talent is remarkable. In fact as child heroes go Sailboat emerges something of a blank slate. As played by solemn-faced youngster Julian Atocani Sanchez he is an appealing presence yet strangely devoid of personality. Similarly for a feel-good fable the film is strangely ambivalent about Sailboat and his family's interaction with the community. Their reaction to the fairly benign attention drawn to the boy’s prodigious talent is muted at best.
More interested in observing an assortment of oddballs than weaving a narrative, the story gets a little aimless and at times too twee. Yet Nugent's script counterbalances its whimsy with a winningly wry sense of humour. Indeed for an ostensible family film the gags are deliciously dry and subtly grownup.