The Irish comic actor Chris O'Dowd had his breakout moment with American audiences in 2011 when he played the love interest opposite Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids. Later this year, he'll lend a hand to Thor: The Dark World. And last year, between playing a ne'er-do-well brother in 3, 2, 1 ... Frankie Go Boom and appearing in Judd Apatow's This Is 40, O'Dowd starred in The Sapphires, released in Australia in August. Incidentally, he plays a ne'er-do-well here, too, in the form of an Irish musician.
The two ne'er-do-wells are obviously somewhat similar, as O'Dowd's done well for himself playing moderately attractive geeks who eventually find their way in the world. And it's to his credit that he's managed to spin this into leading-man success, even if Sapphires burdens itself with clichés and doesn't break much new ground. At least it's sweet and sincere, co-written by Tony Briggs, the son of one of the women whose tale is presented in this based-on-a-true-story narrative.
The Sapphires were a girl group composed of four young Aboriginal women who traveled to Vietnam in the late 1960s to entertain American troops with Motown songs. In the film, the group starts as a trio of sisters.
There's Gail (Deborah Mailman), the oldest, and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), the wild one, and always tagging along with them is Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the youngest sister, who already has a child but also has the best voice. They're talented singers, desperate to get out of their small Australian hometown, and when they meet drunken Irish musician Dave Lovelace (O'Dowd) at a local music competition, he agrees to manage them and to arrange for a USO audition in the big city.
It's in that city where Kay (Shari Sebbens) lives, the light-skinned cousin they haven't seen since she was snatched away by authorities during the time of the Stolen Generation. There's bad blood between Kay and Gail, because Kay now identifies as a white girl. That sounds heavy, but when Sapphires touches on issues of race, it does so in a safe, lightweight way because it's a safe, lightweight film. Enter a quick montage that prepares them for their audition, and then it's off to Vietnam.
Soon, the girls, who've been treated so poorly down under, are a hit in Vietnam, and have all kinds of men courting. Kay finds her own issues aren't so black-and-white when she meets Robby (Tory Kittles), an African-American medic. But Vietnam is also kind of a bummer, because it's, well, Vietnam during the war.
All of these issues — war, violence, racism and infidelity, too — are merely touched upon, designed not to distract from the drama that takes place between four women and their manager. It's all set in a very PG-13 environment, and though there's a bit of violence toward the very end, the end is never truly in doubt. Things are going to wind up OK.
Adapted from a stage play of the same title, Sapphires certainly delivers harmless entertainment, blessed with a cast interesting enough to make up for the small budget and less-than-inventive script. Director Wayne Blair's wisest move was casting O'Dowd, who's able to hold together not just the girl group, but also the entire film. He injects it with a little bit of heart and, for a typecast, ne'er-do-well white guy, a lot of soul.