August Rush: Kirsten Sheridan Simple, Wholesome Family Fare

Kirsten Sheridan’s “August Rush” represents family entertainment at its simplest, most wholesome and naive.
The second feature from Kirsten (daughter of famed director Jim Sheridan) deviates substantially from her first, “Disco Pigs,” which was harsh and violent.

Like her father, in his “In America” mode, Kirsten is in a gentler, kinder, inspirational mood with this contemporary morality fable, a reworking of Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” concerning an 11-year-old boy (Freddie Highmore of “Finding Neverland”), whose possession of magical musical skills enables his to reconnect with his long-absent parents, who never knew they had a son.

Following its premiere at the fledgling Rome Film Festival in October (in a suitable section, Alice in the City), Warner will release this feel-good message-fantasy over the Thanksgiving weekend, alongside other children’s fare, such as Disney’s magical romantic comedy, “Enchanted” and Zach Helm’s pedestrian “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” starring Dustin Hoffman.

“Open yourself up to the music around you” says protagonist Evan (Highmore), an orphan in a New York boys’ home, expressing the film’s motif–and the director’s wishful thinking. Evan has been listening to “the sounds of the world,” hoping to hear his parents’ call. However, when Richard Jeffries (Terrence Howard), a kind social worker, proposes that Evan be placed with another family, Evan is so defiant and hurt that he runs away.

In a flashback, scenarist Sheridan goes back 11 years to one fateful night, in which a cellist named Lyla (Keri Russell of “Waitress” fame) and rock singer Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, recently seen in Woody Allen’s “Match Point”) meet at a party in Washington Square. One thing leads to another, and the couple has sex, resulting in unplanned pregnancy.

Asking the audiences to take a huge leap of faith, a most contrived and unbelievable scene follows, in which Lyla’s ambitious, career-driven father (William Sadler) tells his daughter that she had given birth prematurely but her baby had died. (Lyla doesn’t remember any of this because she was hit by a car).

Back at present, Evan is seen wandering the streets of Manhattan, where he befriends a streetwise performer Arthur (Leon G. Thomas III), who takes him to a theater that serves as a “home” for others of his ilk. Enter Wizard (Robin Williams), a brash but charming man, who’s clearly modeled after Dickens’ Fagin. In short and incredible order, Evan begins to play the guitar skillfully, which suggests natural abilities rather than years of training and experience. Evan’s potentially commercial talents are not lost on Wizard, who renames the boy August Rush.

Continuing the contrived plotting, Sheridan imbues the parents with guilt and conscience. Neither Lyla nor Louis can forget their fatal rendez-vous, and both end up in the Big Apple. Resenting the way he’s treated by the greedy Wizard, Evan escapes–again. The only remaining enigma, for the very young and nave viewers, is whether the trio of disparate lost souls would reunite to form a new nuclear family

Though semi-autobiographical, “In America,” Sheridan pere’s urban fantasy, walked a fine line between being being emotional and sentimental, a line that’s crossed by his daughter. Her urban fantasy is not only marked by preposterous twists and turns, but it also increasingly becomes schmaltzy. Also like “In America,” New York City is depicted here as a jungle populated by men like Wizard, but also by kind and generous souls like the pastor played by Mykelti Williamson, who takes Evan/August to the best school, Julliard School of Music.

Like her father, Kirsten is good at establishing mood. In fact, the only thing that lingers in memory after the film is over is its complex sound and evocative music that jointly capture the Big City’s rhythms in all their colorful variability, manifest in basketball playing, streets traffic noise, subway cars, melodic tunes of guitar-playing in Central Park and other sequences, courtesy of the skillful composers Mark Mancina and Hans Zimmer.

Stuck with familiar but unconvincing role that he could have done in his sleep, Robin Williams is predictable in every word and move. Best acting is offered from the charismatic child actor Highmore, who was equally touching and impressive in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and Marc Forster’s “Finding Neverland.” Here, he valiantly resists the temptation-and script-to play Evan/August as a victim/orphan.

Not so Keri Russell, who was so commanding in Adrienne Shelley’s “Waitress,” but here, allotted a bland role, she can’t find anything interesting to do or to say. Ditto for the usually reliable and versatile Jonathan Rhys Meyer, who has a small role as the Irish guitarist-singer, and also can’t convince that once upon a time he had been enamored with Lyla.

Elevating the music to mythic and metaphoric levels, Sheridan wants to say that once you love music, you can give it up (as Lyla and Louis have–temporarily that is). She offers the proposition that music possesses mystically healing and connecting powers that surpass the function of language and words.

Deviating from the style of her feature debut, here Sheridan strains to achieve magical realism, the kind of which defined the visuals of her father’s work, “In America,” despite the harsh realism of the basic story and situations. She almost succeeds due to work of ace lenser John Mathieson, whose visuals in the Washington Square and Central Park scenes, for example, propel the story more effectively and magically than the nominal narrative.

Unlike most novice writer-directors, Kirsten is more skillful as a helmer than a scribe. Her borderline banal dialogue often conflicts with the sharper sounds and images, dragging the saga down to the level of unadulterated schmaltz.


Evan Taylor/August Rush – Freddie Highmore
Lyla Novacek – Keri Russell
Louis Connelly- Jonathan Rhys Meyers
Richard Jeffries – Terrence Howard
Wizard – Robin Williams
Thomas Novacek – William Sadler
Arthur – Leon G. Thomas III
Hope – Jamia Simone Nash


A Warner release, presented with Odyssey Entertainment, of a Southpaw Entertainment production, in association with CJ Entertainment.
Produced by Richard Barton Lewis.
Executive producers, Robert Greenhut, Ralph Kamp, Louise Goodsill, Miky Lee, Lionel Wigram, Richard Burton Lewis.
Directed by Kirsten Sheridan.
Screenplay, Nick Castle, James V. Hart, from a story by Paul Castro and Castle.
Camera: John Mathieson.
Editor: William Steinkamp.
Music: Mark Mancina, Hans Zimmer.
Music supervisors: Anastasia Brown, Julia Michels, Jeffrey Pollack.
Production designer: Michael Shaw.
Art director: Mario R. Ventenilla.
Costume designer: Frank L. Fleming.
Sound: Tom Nelson, Jason Oliver.
Sound designer: Rick Hromadka.
Sound editor: Jess Rosen.

MPAA Rating: PG.
Running time: 113 Minutes.