[Screen It]

(2007) (Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell) (PG)

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Drama: A young musical prodigy hopes he can find the parents he's never known through his music.
Evan (FREDDIE HIGHMORE) is an 11-year-old boy growing up in an orphanage who can hear music in just about anything. While Richard Jeffries (TERRENCE HOWARD) of New York's Child Services would like to see him placed with a family, he understands Evan's reluctance since many kids worry that if they leave, their birth parents won't be able to find them.

11 years ago, his were pampered cellist Lyla Novacek (KERI RUSSELL) and Irish rocker Louis Connelly (JONATHAN RHYS MEYERS) who met one night in New York, with their liaison resulting in her getting pregnant. When her father, Thomas (WILLIAM SADLER), separated them, they figured they'd never see each other again. That only got worse for Lyla when her father lied that her baby died in childbirth, thus resulting in young Evan ending up at his orphanage, Lyla in Chicago teaching music, and Louis in San Francisco in an office job.

Back in the present and believing that music will someone lead him to his parents, Evan ends up in New York City where he meets young street performer Arthur (LEON G. THOMAS III). With no place to stay, Evan returns with Arthur to the latter's deserted theater home where he and other homeless kids ply the streets for tips that go back to the stern man caring for them, Wizard (ROBIN WILLIAMS).

When he realizes Evan is a guitar prodigy, he renames him "August Rush," sends him out into the city, and dreams of making big money being the boy's manager. But August will not be denied in his quest, resulting in him meeting church girl Hope (JAMIA SIMONE NASH), whose pastor gets the boy into Juilliard. From that point on, and as he continues to discover and make music, August hopes that he'll some day meet his parents, unaware that they're now also in the city with him.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Although I don't recall ever seeing this in the official "How to Be a Kid" handbook while growing up, one of the rules seems to be that children must rebel against their parents. Of course, that can occur in any number of ways from breaking rules (or even the law) to clothing and hairstyles.

One of the most prominent, however, is in choosing a different style of music to call one's own. Every subsequent generation seems to have a knack for doing so, with kids becoming even more stubborn and steadfast in their tastes the more their parents (or other adults) tell them "to turn that racket off" or ask why they don't listen to "real" or at least "good" music.

Kids, parents, and music permeate the drama "August Rush," but not as a clash of styles, juvenile rebellion, or familial divisiveness. Instead, the music here is all about bringing family together, even after bad choices, the efforts of others, or simple happenstance and/or fate do their best to keep them apart. As a result, this is the film that should have been entitled "The Music Within," rather than the recent Ron Livingston pic about an early disability rights proponent (where the meaning was figurative rather than literal).

Here, the title is the street stage name given to the titular character by a music hustler played by none other than Robin Williams in yet dark, if not entirely successful role. In what's presumably a purposeful bit of homage to Dickens' "Oliver Twist," the filmmakers -- director Kirsten Sheridan and writers Nick Castle and James V. Hart -- have set Williams' character as the second coming of Fagan with his youthful gang of street performers out making money for him.

His latest slave-cum-protégé is played by Freddie Highmore, the ultra-adorable kid from pics such as "Love Actually" and "Finding Neverland" who's going through that awkward, transitional growing stage where adolescent metamorphosis has subverted the cuteness he formerly milked for everything it was worth.

Incorrectly believed to be an orphan, August never knew his parents and thus couldn't rebel against their musical tastes. Yet, and in one of various far-fetched bits that one must overcome to buy into the film and get behind its premise and the protagonist's goal, the boy's world has always been filled with music.

We know this from his initial and unnecessary voice-over narration and views of him hearing "music" in the everyday world, where all sorts of sounds have him play "conducting" both natural and manmade orchestrations. I understand what the filmmakers are after with such footage, but it can't help but come off as contrived and artificial.

Due to his upbringing, he's never had access to creating music, but thanks to Williams' boss character and later a young girl in a church (a cute Jamia Simone Nash), the boy is introduced to the guitar and piano (and then pipe organ). Being a natural prodigy, it's only moments before he's making music, and one of the film's more enjoyable elements is in watching his delight in discovering this ability.

Of course, that isn't exactly realistic, and the increasing fantasy element eventually smothers much of the work. That's particularly true regarding the musical journey that the boy undertakes (including, natch, a stop at Juilliard) where his goal isn't exactly to entertain anyone who will listen. Rather, it's his belief that his music will somehow help him find his long-lost parents.

They're played by Keri Russell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as brief, star-crossed lovers whose one-night musical liaison (partially stemming, indirectly, from Williams' character wailing away on the harmonica, off somewhere in the distance) led to the boy's birth. While the father never knew he was just that, the young mother was told by her father (an overbearing William Sadler) that her baby died at childbirth, thus devastating her and seemingly forever altering the couple's lives, albeit separately.

In an effort to keep things interesting, the filmmakers jump around through time, including the would-be parents back then and now, all as their boy hopes he can find them. The pic certainly has its heart in the right place, but it suffers from various problems, including some occasionally awful lines of dialogue, while the fantasy style elements occasionally clash with the dramatic ones and thus give the effort something of an uneven tone.

While I'm not the genre's biggest fan, perhaps the story would have been better suited had it been turned into a musical, at least one similar in structure to this year's fabulous "Once" where the numbers would naturally stem from the characters' musical interests and abilities.

As it stands, it's more than a bit far-fetched, although it does have its share of winning moments, some of them with decent emotional power. Even so, to quote British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, "Great music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and leaves the memory with difficulty. Magical music never leaves the memory." "August Rush" intends to be both great and magical, but stumbles over various difficulties, meaning it likely won't stick around long in the collective cinematic psyche. It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed November 1, 2007 / Posted November 21, 2007

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