MOVIE REVIEW: A Boy Called Sailboat

A Boy Called Sailboat is an astonishingly assured debut narrative film, managing to be heartwarming but not overly cloying, visually striking without seeming like a formal exercise, thoughtful but probably not too complicated for kids to understand. It’s a movie for the whole family, whether you’re a cinephile or a sucker for gentle, kid-friendly storytelling. The premise is simple enough, narrated by and shown entirely through Sailboat’s eyes. Sailboat (Julian Atocani Sanchez), a precocious young boy, and his parents José (Noel Gugliemi) and Meyo (Elizabeth De Razzo) live in a ramshackle, teetering house in a desert town on the United States-Mexico border. The entire area has been in a drought ever since Sailboat was born, with no rain in sight. One day, while playing in a junk heap, Sailboat finds a beautiful ukulele. When his abuela falls sick, she tells Sailboat to write her a song, and so he does, teaching himself to play his “little guitar” until he’s written the greatest song ever.
A Boy Called Sailboat at times takes on the patterns of a fable, in that complicated plots and truly developed characters have been exchanged for just enough momentum and identifying detail to make it all work, and enough heart to convey the messages of the film. While the characterizations of the adults might come across as thin, it’s because Sailboat understands them with the mind of a child and thinks of them in terms of habitual behaviors and patterns he’s observed his whole life. To Sailboat, José is always worried about the single stick that holds up their slanted house, keeping it from falling, painting him as the watchful guardian figure of Sailboat’s life. Likewise, Meyo is characterized by her delicious meatballs, her shyness, and her lack of confidence: she never goes out of the house if she can avoid it due to their previous postman calling her fat. José and Meyo undoubtedly have rich inner lives, which is hinted in their reluctance to let Sailboat see just how bad Abuela’s condition has become, but it’s not a knock on the film that we don’t see them really interact outside of Sailboat. To a child that young, you are the axis around which your parents revolve.
Sailboat’s friend Peeti is similarly reduced to his love of soccer—he’s always kicking around a ball—and his inability to blink, for which he carries eyedrops at all times. (There’s a moment where Peeti muses on the fact that surgery could fix the problem, but his family can’t afford it, which Sailboat seems to understand with both innocence and gravity.) Similarly, Sailboat’s classmate Mandy, who becomes a friend over the course of the film, is characterized by the big headphones and CD player she totes around, as well as by her adorably-sophisticated love of guitar music. Writer-director Cameron Nugent handles these child-actor interactions with incredible skill, recalling Sean Baker’s work in The Florida Project, only occasionally veering into overly-precious kid-esque dialogue. J.K. Simmons makes an appearance or two as Ernest, a fast-talking used car salesman, who is defined in Sailboat’s mind by the rhythm and tone of his sales pitch.

What you see on the screen is undoubtedly influenced by Wes Anderson’s hyper-stylized, whimsical settings and symmetrical staging. The film’s palette is limited to the pale turquoise of the family car, the sky, and the yellow-gold-brown of the dusty ground; Sailboat’s school and other surroundings are often rendered in varying shades of turquoise and yellow, creating a sense of warmth. Nugent uses plenty of wide shots that capture the parched, harsh beauty of the tumbleweed-strewn ground. Some of the film’s dialogue comes across as inspired by Anderson’s wordy, expositional patter, but Nugent livens up the formula by dealing in unabashed sincerity. Of course, there’s an immediate difference in who Nugent has chosen to focus his story on: where Anderson’s films have been critiqued for their overwhelming whiteness, A Boy Called Sailboat gives that same enchanted, fable-like touch to a story about a Latino family not from wealth or privilege, but poor, and subject to countless little indignities from Sailboat’s white teacher and classmates. His teacher (Jake Busey, affecting a Woody Harrelson-type of brashness), calls him “south of the border,” constantly reminding him that he’s different from many of his classmates; he also can’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce José. One of the most visually clever moments in A Boy Called Sailboat comes when José and Sailboat track down the parent of a white classmate who wrecked the strings on Sailboat’s little guitar. José subsequently intimidates the kid’s father into splurging on the highest-quality strings. Then, as he’s dropping father and son at their nice little suburban-style home, he threatens the bully alone in the car, and the dialogue comes out of his mouth as angled strings of text rather than sound.
A little more on sound in A Boy Called Sailboat: for a movie about a boy writing a song, it might seem odd that we never actually get to hear what Sailboat creates. Every time he plays the song, be it for Mandy and Peeti, for his parents, for his classmates and teacher, the audio cuts out to a faint hum, almost like a dial tone, allowing us to focus on the listeners’ reaction to the song. As Sailboat says in the film: “sometimes things happen so that other things can happen.” It doesn’t actually matter if we hear the song itself, because A Boy Called Sailboat is about the impact of the song, which eventually grows until it brings rain back to the town. What song written by a small child could have such a magical, fantastical impact? That’s where the fable aspect comes in. A Boy Called Sailboat, on one level, then, is about how we tell stories, and how we mythologize our own lives. In his family lore, Sailboat “was born thinking about” boats, somehow magically drawing one as a baby before he even knew what a sailboat was. By the end of the film, the story is dispelled for us, the audience, but not for Sailboat or his parents.

Sailboat writes the song for his sick abuela—that’s the initial purpose. As more and more people demand to hear it, it stops being a source of joy for Sailboat, but an obligation. And by the end of the film, he still doesn’t know if his comatose Abuela can hear it when he finally plays for her, but he’s managed to bring people happiness and, magically, bring rain down from the sky, just like his playing wrings tears from the listeners’ eyes.