For a musical drama that hits virtually every trope of the well-worn underdog-singer subgenre, The Sapphires presents its familiar story in such a way that it's easy to forgive that sneaking sense of déjà vu that starts to creep in from the very first time Aboriginal sisters Gail (Deborah Mailman), Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) take the stage before an audience of tough -- and vocally racist -- critics. Inspirational, socially conscious, and gently humorous, the first feature from veteran actor-turned-director Wayne Blair works primarily due to the natural chemistry shared between the onscreen sisters and their charming co-star Chris O'Dowd, and in part because it transplants the standard story to an unusual setting that lends it some satisfying tension, even if there's little doubt that no actual harm will come to the characters.
Gail, Cynthia, and Julie are three singers in late-'60s Australia with an abundance of passion and plenty of raw talent. Recognizing something special in the way the girls perform a Merle Haggard tune at a small-town talent show, emcee Dave (Chris O'Dowd) gets them an audition to perform for American soldiers in Vietnam, and shapes them into a Motown-inspired soul group. On the way to their audition in Melbourne, the girls manage to recruit their long-lost sister Kay (Shari Sebbens) and turn the trio into a quartet. With Dave as their backup, they succeed in getting their big break. But upon arriving in Vietnam -- where handsome soldiers abound and death has become part of the daily routine -- the sheltered young singers witness sights their peaceful upbringing in the Outback never prepared them for. Meanwhile, hard-drinking Dave finds himself falling for Gail as tensions between the protective elder sibling and her estranged sister Kay come to a head, and a crucial performance before their largest crowd to date finds the Sapphires forced to face their greatest fear.
For a film dealing with such heated topics as racism and the Vietnam War, The Sapphires remarkably manages to maintain an unexpectedly buoyant tone without shortchanging the story's more sober undercurrents. Even before they introduce us to the sisters, screenwriters Tony Briggs and Keith Thompson offer up a brief history of the deplorable racism experienced by the native Australian population (who were shockingly classified as flora and fauna rather than human beings by early British settlers), including the so-called "Stolen Generation" -- which consisted of fair-skinned Aboriginal children who were forcefully taken from their homes and groomed to thrive in white society. This admittedly brief bit of context not only goes a long way toward helping non-Australians understand the social climate of the country at the time the events unfolded, but also serves as a solid setup for one of the story's most dramatic revelations late in the film. Though in many ways it feels as if Briggs and Thompson were essentially painting by numbers while penning the screenplay, they still succeed in making us care about the girls by giving them distinct personalities that slowly emerge though interactions with their romantic interests, their amiable manager, and each other.
As the eponymous singing group, stars Mailman, Mauboy, Sebbens, and Tapsell (the latter three all being relative newcomers to the screen) display an endearingly naturalistic charm that brings their characters to life. Likewise, O'Dowd, occasionally channeling the awkward charm of his small-screen counterpart Roy from The IT Crowd, turns in a memorable performance as the flawed-but-well-meaning manager who's never forgotten how to dream, despite the disappointments life has dealt him. Both on-stage and off, the drama in The Sapphires is satisfyingly balanced, even when it might have benefitted from a bit more raw emotion. The same could be said about the singing, which occasionally sounds somewhat over-polished (especially in the case of an early scene just before the talent show, as the sisters harmonize while their mother watches on).
Despite the prosaic plot and reserved approach taken by Blair, Briggs, and Thompson, it's tough to get cynical about such a warmhearted picture that strives to tell so uplifting a story -- and really, what's the point? Few who buy a ticket for The Sapphires will be concerned with the similarities it shares with a number of other films. In fact, they're less likely to criticize those similarities than they are to find comfort in them, and in an era when we're sadly still struggling with many of the same social issues presented here, who would deny moviegoers that small, innocuous pleasure?