There’s romance in the sight of a sailboat, never moreso than when you see one is the last place you’d expect — the desert Southwest.
That arresting, poetic image has turned up in a few movies over the years — 2003’s “Off the Map” comes to mind. And it sets the tone for “A Boy Called Sailboat,” a charming romantic fable which opens with the sight of a cowboy hat-wearing used car salesman (J.K. Simmons) towing a fully rigged, old and worn-out sloop across the parched flatness of New Mexico.
He deals in classic cars, but is always on the hunt for “acquisitions” that add a touch of novelty, whimsy and fantasy to his mid-desert “Oasis” lot.
“Boy Called Sailboat” is about a nearby child who has been obsessed with the image of a sloop under sail since birth. He’s never actually seen one, but little Sailboat (screen novice Julian Ataconi Sanchez) has always drawn them, something only his sickly abuela (grandmother, played by Rusalia Benavidez) understands.
In Sailboat’s self-narrated folktale, our story doesn’t really begin until Sailboat himself finds “an acquisition.”
“My abuela says, ‘You find the most important things when you’re not looking.”
It’s “a little guitar” that suits his diminutive stature (a ukulele, actually). And it becomes Sailboat’s new obsession.
His indulgent mother (Elizabeth De Razzo) smiles and encourages him. Her obsession is spicy Mexican meatballs. Sailboat’s doting dad (veteran character actor Noel Gugliemi, wonderfully stone-faced) may have the bald head, face tattoos and scowl of a brute. But he gets it, too. His obsession is horses, and he’s covered the walls of their tumbledown (literally) shack with paint-by-numbers portraits of stallions. He paints them when he isn’t seeing to “the stick,” a colorfully decorated pole that props their leaning ruin of a house up.
Best pal Peeti (Keanu Wilson) may wish Sailboat would share his soccer obsession. Peeti cannot blink and is constantly putting drops in his eyes, and therefor needs a friend to pass the ball to while he’s administering the drops.
Even Sailboat’s loopy teacher (Jake Busey, perfectly cast) buys into the kid’s new “little guitar.” Teach is obsessed with rattlesnakes, and is forever showing them off to his class.
The story really takes off when abuela, sick in the hospital, gives Sailboat a task.
“Write me a song on that little guitar.”
Which Sailboat, who seems to be about 8, attempts to do. He charms a cute girl classmate, who helps him. He draws the attention of school bullies, which is when Papa “gets that difficult look on his face” (scary) and has to intervene.
And the song the kid concocts makes grown men weep, leaves women, children and everybody slack-jawed with awe.
Which leaves Australian writer-director Cameron Nugent with a dilemma. How do you present a song you’ve built up with that much hype? The biggest letdown of “Mr. Holland’s Opus” is when we hear that “Opus,” in the film’s finale. The bust in Spike Lee’s “Mo Better Blues” is the song the lead composes of that title, which is no “blues,” jazz or otherwise.
So Nugent makes the screen go silent — with a thousand hertz tone playing when Sailboat sings his song. It’s a novel solution to a problem, but a rather irritating and unsatisfying one, I have to confess.
So many other ingredients to the picture dazzle and delight that this unfortunate miscalculation grows larger in contrast. Guitarists Leonard and Slava Grigoryan fill the guitar-duo score with snatches of folk songs and children’s tunes — fanciful Spanish guitar runs through “Row Row, Row Your Boat,” to “La Bamba,” “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” to “House of the Rising Sun.”
And the film cheats us of a “big moment.”
Simmons gets to trot out his sexualized used car-salesman’s patter, Busey gives Bing the teacher a compassionately clueless touch — showing off snakes to little kids, nicknaming Sailboat “South of the Border,” dragging the class to the local tobacco factory for a field trip.
The pest control guy who uses desert lizards to eat problem insects, the creepy-seeming vintage Chevy driver (all the cars are old) who picks up Sailboat hitchhiking, the feisty abuela (“I am from Tijuana. Sick does not concern me.”) — “A Boy Called Sailboat” bubbles over with delightful, light touches and decorations.
I’d buy the soundtrack if they put it on disc.
It’s just a shame Nugent couldn’t find a less grating solution to “We don’t want you to ever hear the song.”
MPAA Rating: unrated, mild threats of violence
Cast: Julian Atocani Sanchez, J.K. Simmons, Elizabeth De Razzo, Jake Busey, Noel Gugliemi
Credits: Written and directed by Cameron Nugent. A Cinedigm release.
Running time: 1:32