Spoiler Alert: this review contains plot details
The launch of A Boy Called Sailboat in 2018 was the realisation of a long term dream for former child actor Cameron Nugent. The script he lovingly crafted was originally set in Melbourne. Twenty years later, these early ideas became a fully-fledged and award-winning film produced in Silver City, New Mexico.
Sailboat is a young Latino boy growing up in a desolate area near a predominantly white American town. He keeps to himself, apart from his friendship with Peeti, a soccer fanatic who is cruelly afflicted by a disability that prevents him from actually playing the game.
When Sailboat finds a beautiful “little guitar” (a ukulele) discarded in a pile of junk, he instantly knows it’s very special. He then promises his dying grandmother, Abuela, that he will write her a song for her. The only problem is he can’t play.
Sailboat works on his challenge, learning music through a “teach yourself” CD, and eventually composes a song to play for his grandmother. He begins to play it to an increasingly wider circle. In a quirky director’s decision, the audience never hears the song – this is left up to imagination. Mandy (an audiophile) ranks the song above the Beach Boys, and almost everyone is reduced to tears or ecstasy and raw emotion.
The film oozes dramatic, wide desert landscapes and washed-out colours, occasionally punctuated with popping turquoises, yellows, and the ever present purple velvet gym suit worn by Sailboat’s mother. The cinematography, led by Richard Garrett (Robert the Bruce, Avengers: Endgame), is reminiscent of the 1984 classic, Paris Texas.
The stark, arid, desert setting for Sailboat’s family home testifies to overt poverty. There has been drought since Sailboat was born. The home eventually does tumble down, and Peeti, the boy who can’t blink, is unable to afford surgery to fix his disability.
Nugent (Ratbag hero, More Winners, Round the Twist) conceived, directed and co-produced the film with business partner Andrew Curry. Curry is a member of the Melbourne family who perforate the Australian film industry. Brother Bernard Curry plays almost all the bit parts.
Sailboat (Julian Atocani Sanchez), nicknamed for his obsession with sailboats, and friends Peeti (Keanu Wilson) and Mandy (Zeyah Pearson), are joined by actors with greater recognition and experience. The draw card is renowned character actor, J.K Simmons (Law and Order, Spider-man, Juno and Whiplash).
Undoubtably, Simmons’ generosity helped spark the project’s success with his time and Hollywood name, Nugent explains. His role is small but memorable, despite being a headliner. Simmons shared just one scene with seven-year-old Sanchez, playing Ernest, the used car salesman. With no one around but the boy, Ernest practices his sales pitch. In a Southern drawl he barks out a sing song spiel to would-be buyers.
The cast of children were drawn from the local community, untrained as actors and relying on their own native natural expression. As Nugent told the audience in a director’s showing in Canberra in late 2022, the first casting calls were for children from agencies. On reflection, the production team eventually looked locally to find a group of endearing and talented children to charm the audience. Perhaps Nugent’s experience in children’s television helped develop the young talent into actors who predominantly hold the film.
Noel Gigliemi, a Hollywood tough guy, plays Sailboat’s dad, and is one of the standout characters in the film. Noel G’s range of stern expressions spans from serious concern about the stick propping up the family’s ramshackle hut to terrifying, as he intimidates the school bully. Alongside Elizabeth De Razzo as Sailboat’s mother, they play sincere and doting parents. De Razzo, is serene, shy and masterful with meatballs. Gigliemi dreams of owning horses – and a car with a complete set of doors.
Jake Busey is the teacher with a fascination for snakes. His comedy scenes don’t always hit the mark for adults, and can go over the heads of children. While his character is an important conduit for scene transitions, some of these don’t always make sense. The excursion to the tobacco farm is a detour that’s hard to fathom.
There is a mythological quality in the film. It’s peppered with poetic, beguiling phrases such as ‘little guitar’, ‘angry cow’ and ‘hungry boy’. The enthusiastic approval of Sailboat’s only song coupled with its deeply moving emotional response reinforces the fairytale resonance. Equally fanciful is meeting a music producer on the lonely highway as the boy tries to find his grandmother on his own.
The soundtrack was produced by another Melbourne duo, classical guitarists the Grigoryan Brothers. To save on royalties, folk songs and nursery rhymes were given complex Latin arrangements by the skilful and talented Grigoryans. The sound track brings ambience and pace to the movie and anchors the Latin American context.
The rendition of “House of Rising Sun” which could be the full version of Sailboat’s song is outstanding.
The film received awards from the Boston Film Festival (Best Director and Best Screenplay), the Newport Beach Film Festival (Audience Award Family Film) and the Prescott Film Festival’s Director’s Choice Indie Spirit Award.
The guitar itself is a feature in the film, carefully handcrafted by Melbourne guitar-makers; Cole Clark. And the Sailboat? Look out for the recurring theme.
Should I see it?
A Boy Called Sailboat is a delightful and lighthearted film with a naïve quality. It’s a gentle folktale, beautifully filmed with off-beat characters, suitable for older children and adults. The comedy is subtle and not visually overstated enough to hold the attention of younger children. If you enjoy a funny, uplifting story about life, struggle and dreams, and are happy to be challenged at times by the pace and plot line, the film is very enjoyable. If your taste is for Hollywood blockbusters and action films, then you are unlikely to be convinced that it’s worth your viewing time.
The Grigoryans periodically tour with the film, performing the soundtrack live, or you download if from any streaming service.