To not damn the film with faint praise, The Sapphires is a crowd-pleaser, a light and safe film. It features a charming performance by Chris O'Dowd (Kristen Wiig's romantic partner in Bridesmaids, and current staple of the Judd Apatow film and television world) and great musical numbers. But it also scrubs clean the huge canvas of Australian governmental enforced racism of the 1960s against Aboriginals by the mandated removal of whiter skinned children from their darker brothers and sisters, forcing separate communities. It also reduces the Vietnam War to USO performances.
O'Dowd plays Dave, a drunk keyboard player at a small club who accepts a challenge from three Aboriginal sisters (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy and Miranda Tapsell) to get them a tryout in Melbourne to go on a performance tour in Vietnam for U.S. troops. In Melbourne the three sisters reconnect with Kay (Shari Sebbens), a girl torn from their Aboriginal community when they were younger who was placed with white families, and entirely disconnected from her roots. Dave switches their music from sad, country music to soul music, with glittered costumes and hip shakes, and they are off to Vietnam.
The Sapphires has two films within it, on two continents, with two huge conflicts: The Stolen Generation and politics of 1960s Australia and the Vietnam War. But because it only touches on each conflict, it never really touches on the fear of being in either place. Their performance at Dave's club is met with audience disapproval due to their skin color, but then they are off to Vietnam. In Vietnam they perform for troops and are rarely privy to the actual war. After a performance they are forced to drive through the country to their next show without armed escorts, and they are terrified, but the film just gets them to the next performance with the only horror being a conversation where Dave reveals that he is married. The Sapphires is a fairytale during wartime, in dangerous territory. For example, a medic (Tory Kittles) and romantic pursuer of Kay is able to pop up at so many of their performances that he doesn't seem to be in a war at all. He's a starry-eyed groupie.
Despite this odd, light approach to both continents, The Sapphires remains entertaining, largely in part to O'Dowd's quick wit and the great voices of the girls, until it steps on a landmine of awkwardness in an unconvincing romance between Dave and one of the girls. In fact, we never understand how old any of The Sapphires are, who are adults and who are children, which makes all of their romantic pursuits enter the gray area of the unanswerable question: Can I accept this?
By checking the boxes of a racially charged musical (resistance, acceptance and, finally, love), The Sapphires underutilizes the likable components that it has by only touching on occasional conflict in favor of clunky tidiness.
It is of note, however, to say that this film was co-written by one of the sons of an Aboriginal woman who was part of a real girl group that performed in Vietnam. There is obvious love of the material, and the proximity that co-writer Tony Briggs has to the story almost makes it beyond reproach to critique. The Sapphires is light and safe, and perhaps a story that was told to younger generations with only the highlights. It decidedly skips the conflict and despair, and is instead, a fairytale.
"The Sapphires" screened on Monday, November 5 and Tuesday, November 6 as part of the AFI Film Festival.