NYICFF REVIEW: Sing Song [2017]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 96 minutes
    Release Date: July 19th, 2017 (Netherlands)
    Studio: Dutch FilmWorks
    Director(s): Mischa Kamp
    Writer(s): Fiona van Heemstra / Guus Pengel (co-writer)

I’m looking for my eyes in your eyes.

For Dutch teenager Jasmine (Georgiefa Boomdijk), her homeland of Suriname (a northeastern South American country) is a footnote. She knows little about it or the mother she and her father Winston (Maurits Delchot) left behind sixteen years previously. He refuses to talk about anything pre-Netherlands so her sole connection is a photo of the woman she hasn’t yet resigned herself to believing she’ll never meet. So when a contest held across the Atlantic from where she lays her head asks for online submissions, Jasmine and her best friend Stijn (Floris Bosma) record a song and cross their fingers. Her birthright allows judge/organizer Fifty Fifty (Glen Faria) to take a chance and fly them there to compete. No one knows her true motivation is finding Mama Grace (Jaleeza Weibolt).

Sing Song may not be the most original overseas adventure with a lead lying to her parent (who thinks she’s in Berlin) and shutting out her only ally (Stijn’s ignorance maintains her cover with those providing room and board) while embarking on a wild goose chase by herself, but I don’t think writer Fiona van Heemstra or director Mischa Kamp had that goal in mind anyway. They have instead set their sights on creating an endearing and poignant look at a young woman searching to claim her identity within a world doing all it can to force one half of her heritage upon her by disposing of the other. Their musical looks to inspire headstrong youths yearning for more with a stylized, Disney romp energy regardless of familiarity.

And it succeeds in large part due to Boomdijk’s performance. This is a project that could have easily built itself on fish out of water awe and yet never does. Jasmine is on a mission and the lies she tells to see it through take their toll. She keeps her father in the dark because he’s done the same her entire life. If he’d given her information about her mother, maybe she wouldn’t have to sneak around. She knows that doing this risks alienating him as though to say he wasn’t enough, but she’s also aware this type of thinking does her no favors. Jasmine can’t sacrifice her own happiness for those around her. She cannot ignore the longing she feels even if solving it means using others.

We know Winston and Stijn eventually must get mad—we couldn’t believe their characters otherwise. The former will become aware of where she really is and the latter can’t constantly fall back on his unrequited crush every time she ditches him without warning to continue her journey. It’s therefore Kamp and van Heemstra’s job to ensure the love they feel is honest in that anger. Love isn’t about an impossible notion of perpetual acceptance or infinite patience. It’s about forgiveness. We need Jasmine to make choices that will bring her closer to the truth of who and where her mother is at the detriment of those relationships she currently holds close. This is how we recognize her mission’s importance and their forgiveness is how we understand their love.

It’s these emotional bonds that hold Sing Song together when it falls into its tween-targeted musical trappings (there’s an entire song and dance wherein the other female contestants tell Jasmine she better lock Stijn down before one of them makes her move). The requisite “mean girl” is here to remind Jasmine she’s an outsider (Amani Verwey‘s Adaya). So is the likeminded soul who opens herself up to Jasmine before watching her apparent selfishness cause her to question if what she thought she saw in this newcomer was all a ruse (Tyra Koning‘s Felicity). Thankfully the potential for catfight blow-ups decreases as the film progresses. Whereas Fifty Fifty’s warnings would make it seem Jasmine will ultimately choose her song over finding her mother, the opposite is true.

This is crucial because it means the story is allowed to retain its dramatic gravitas. It has its fun with the contest, but doesn’t forget that the chance to sing onstage with Kenny B is merely Jasmine’s excuse to be in Suriname. The words Fifty Fifty shares to get her head on track become the exact motivation she needs to not give up her search no matter how impossible the odds begin to seem. Her quest is needle in haystack territory on paper after all. Jasmine has nothing but a decades old photo to show strangers in the hopes someone knows her. This obviously means a lot of luck and coincidence will be involved, but don’t fear since it happens with as much authenticity as convenience.

And the music heard along the way is catchy. Jasmine’s songs are as resonate as they are invigorating and the little snippets of attitude from the wide variety of kids alongside her arrive as humorous asides to break the monotony. Not every track is accompanied by the full-scale choreography of the world around her, but the lyrics always have relevance to the plot whether she’s singing to everyone or merely thinking while moving forward. Eventually she’ll face the choice between victory in music and victory in life—the song sung to inspire herself a winner if she’ll let it be heard. But as her isolation increases with each misstep pushing those she relied on away, we start to understand what Fifty Fifty meant about the power of song.

He asks these kids to look within and write from a place of feeling. He doesn’t want them to sacrifice message for a dance move or standing ovation. He doesn’t want the audience’s toe-tapping to overshadow the quality of the words covering that infectious melody. It’s a metaphor for Jasmine’s entire reason for being in Suriname. She can no longer stand not knowing where she comes from just because she has a good life elsewhere. The privileges and comforts only go so far when there’s a hole in her heart that could still be filled. The answers won’t be easy to hear nor joyous without a bittersweet edge, but the simple act of knowing cannot be underestimated. And beyond any surface tween clichés, Sing Song proves this truth.

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