A Boy Called Sailboat (2018)
Although there are one or two big names attached to indie comedy A Boy Called Sailboat, the true stars are a group of child actors led by Julian Atocani Sanchez, who plays Sailboat, a little boy with a little guitar who just wants to write a song for his Abuela. It’s a special kind of film that can rely on children to drive its story and maintain its charm, but A Boy Called Sailboat pulls it off, evading some of the pitfalls of the quirky indie comedy to deliver something truly wonderful.
Each character in the film is fueled by their own specific obsession and constructs their lives around it. Sailboat lives with his parents in a small house in the middle of the desert, somewhere along the Texas border. His father Jose (Noel Gugliemi) dreams of horses and six-shooters, but has to keep an eye on the Stick, a wooden prop painted the colors of the Mexican flag that stops their house from falling over. Sailboat’s mother Meyo (Elizabeth de Razzo) spends her days making meatballs, rarely leaving the house. His best friend Peeti (Keanu Wilson) teaches himself to play soccer, and classmate Mandy (Zeyah Peterson) wanders the halls of their school plugged into her portable Discman. Sailboat spends his days at school, at home, or traveling to the Oasis, a roadside car lot run by Ernest (J.K. Simmons), who recounts the brilliance of his three vehicles while Sailboat communes with his namesake – an old wooden boat parked on one side of the lot. One day, Sailboat discovers a little guitar in a pile of junk by the roadside, which he takes to carrying around. When he visits his Abuela (Rusalia Benavidez) in the hospital, she makes him promise to write her a song on his guitar, setting into motion a fable that will change the lives of the people who appear in it.
A Boy Called Sailboat is so self-consciously quirky that it would almost be annoying if it weren’t so sincere. It’s visually and thematically reminiscent of the Hesses’ Napoleon Dynamite or Nacho Libre, with its cast of odd characters and bright color palette. But rather than exploiting its characters for laughs, A Boy Called Sailboat begins to reveal the layers of their obsessions and the reasons behind them, told through the eyes of a boy with a strange name and strange family who doesn’t consider himself strange at all. Sailboat is a loving, accepting little boy, and those around him love and accept him in turn. As he writes his song, the world around him transforms, drawing on the power of music to elicit emotional response, even without our fully understanding why. The soundtrack is primarily composed of classic rock and folk songs – “My Bonnie,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “La Bamba” among them– played without lyrics on guitar, a subtle tribute to the little guitar that so inspires the people who hear it.
Centering the narrative on a Mexican-American family provides an opportunity for some interesting undercurrents given the current national dialogue. The film could easily slip into a story about “magical” Latinx people, but evades that, instead drawing on magical realist traditions in an ambiguously American setting, effectively marrying cultural traditions without exploiting its central characters. There’s a deft sleight of hand going on here, and writer/director Cameron Nugent pulls it off with aplomb, turning A Boy Called Sailboat into a modern fable the moves and amuses without going too far over the edge in quirk. The performers, too, acquit themselves well—including Jake Busey, who plays Sailboat’s hypermasculine teacher, and a fantastic final act appearance from character actor Lew Temple. But the film really centers on Sailboat—yes, his name is explained—and Sanchez carries it all on his shoulders without ever slipping into the maudlin or the overly cutesy.
While A Boy Called Sailboat is not going to remake the world of indie comedy, it really doesn’t need to. It’s a sweet, uplifting film, telling a gentle story about a little boy, his family, his Abuela, and his little guitar. The film doesn’t need anything more or less than that.
A Boy Called Sailboat arrives on VOD, including Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play, on February 5.