A Boy Called Sailboat follows the life of young Sailboat (Julian Atocani Sanchez) who lives in the southwest of the United States with his imposing but lovable dad José (Noel Gugliemi) and sweet-natured cook of a mom Meyo (Elizabeth De Razzo). Meyo does not leave the family’s wooden house, for fear of ridicule from others about her size. Said house slants and is held up only by a wooden beam buried into the ground.
Sailboat and his best friend Peeti (Keanu Wilson) play on their school’s soccer team; though Peeti is the waterboy, as he is unable to blink and must water his eyes every few minutes. When not at school, Sailboat hangs out at the local used car lot, run by Ernest (J.K. Simmons). Ernest does not mind the company and, in fact, practices his sales pitches on the boy. At the lot sits a sailboat, which Sailboat wants to own one day.
One day, Sailboat comes across a little guitar in excellent condition. While visiting his sick grandmother Abuela (Rusalia Benavidez) in the big city, she requests that Sailboat plays a song for her. Since he does not know any, he promises to write her one and perform it on his next visit. Sailboat reaches deep within himself and finds the perfect song. When he plays the song for his teacher, Mr. Bing (Jake Busey), and the rest of the class after a field trip, it moves everyone to their very core. As word of Sailboat’s amazing song spreads, people flock to his house to hear it, setting off a chain of events that changes everyone’s lives forever.
A Boy Called Sailboat, written and directed by Cameron Nugent, is narrated by Sailboat himself, but not as an older man looking back; instead as the child. This is where Nugent’s masterful screenplay reveals its true depths. Sailboat describes that the old mailman once told his mom that she “should stop cooking all those meatballs as she’s a meatball” herself. The kid goes on to explain that his dad’s genial smile stopped and he got “that look on his face,” so now his family has a new postal worker.
Sailboat is young enough to understand the change in his father’s demeanor but not to comprehend why the change takes place entirely. Thus, his descriptions of events are relevant to his frame of reference. Sailboat, unable to recall, or perhaps too young to know the word wig, talks about how Mr. Bing “removed his hair” after hearing the song. It is adorable, sweet, and highlights remarkably well how children interpret the world around them.
“Sailboat reaches deep within himself and finds the perfect song…it moves everyone to their very core.”
The dialogue is also stellar, reminding me a lot of a Diablo Cody picture; and not just because the two films share a star. Throughout her work, Cody writes dialogue that sounds honest to the situations and characters at hand, yet never quite like things people actually say to each other. It is more of an impression of how one wishes they could phrase things if in these same situations. Nugent employs a similar use of heightened speech to invoke the reality the film takes place. The style of speech allows for instant familiarity and also for some rather memorable lines that will stick with you after the movie ends.
Also on display is a keen understanding of human connectivity, shown off beautifully by José and Meyo. The audience can tell how much in love these two are by just watching how they interact. Whether it’s the husband slapping his wife’s bottom in a sweet, frisky way or how happy her cooking makes him, it adds to the warm, pleasant atmosphere that permeates every enchanting second of A Boy Called Sailboat. There hasn’t been a couple this happily married at the start of a movie since Gomez and Morticia made their big screen debuts.
Nugent is quite the talent, as he proves an excellent director as well as a talented screenwriter. Old memories of Sailboat are represented via silent movie footage of his family members (or whoever may be the focal point of the thought), which is a fun little touch which creates a more visually robust watch. He also manages to balance tone remarkably well, showcased by an entertaining sequence when the audience discovers that the pest control in this region is not as expected. The family finds a hive of wood ants is eating the plank propping house up. They call pest control and the man comes rather quickly and sells them a lizard. Yes, a lizard guaranteed to eat ants.
No sooner do they get the reptile to the plank and a hawk swoops done and snatches the creature from the land. The brief moment of the family getting the lizard to the propping mechanism is filmed as if it will be a big, dramatic victory, saving the house from destruction. Then the bird comes, and it is hilarious. However, it is not mean towards the family as the payoff a few minutes later is also a great punchline. Nugent continually proves able to jump back and forth between comedy and drama throughout the film with absolute ease. Of significant note is the fact that the audience never hears this magical song. Nugent cuts away or drains all the sound of any scene in which Sailboat sings, which adds to the mythical proportions the song takes on.
“…slightly magical tale is a joy to watch, and the sweet-natured atmosphere is going to delight viewers for years to come.”
None of this would mean a thing if the actors weren’t up to the challenge of merging the whimsy and drama in the same way the writing and directing can. Sanchez makes his acting debut as Sailboat and is excellent. From the first scene, where he is subscribing to the Winnie The Poohism of how not looking for anything is when something finds you, this kid makes the audience understand and care for him. His chemistry with his onscreen parents is sublime, as they interact and feel like a real loving couple. De Razzo’s timidity as the shut-in mother is believable, and seeing how she comes out of her shell is enjoyable.
Gugliemi intimidates when called for but comes across as a big teddy bear throughout the movie. When asking a music store clerk about the best strings available for the little guitar, while making a bully’s dad pay for them, is hysterical, in part because of the wonderful way he sells the seriousness of the moment. However, when he is sitting at the dinner talking to his family, he has a big smile plastered across his and loves them. Jake Busey does not have a huge role, but he does excellent work as the teacher. Before hearing the song, Mr. Bing lives in the past often and has a one-track minded. Not to say he does not care his pupils but he is not engaged in the here and now. After the song, the teacher is an entirely changed person, who even walks differently. The subtle changes to the mannerisms of the before and after Busey takes on shows how seriously he is taking this small role and he excels in it stupendously.
J.K. Simmons, always one of the best parts of any film he is in (I liked him as Commissioner Gordon and hated everything else about those DCEU flicks he appears in) is great in his small role here. A speech about how he hopes he doesn’t sell the sailboat until Sailboat’s family can buy it is a highlight of an already fantastic movie. Peeti is played by Keanu Wilson, and he brings a wonderful energy to the character and makes his playful nature evident from his silent onscreen introduction. He and Sanchez are enjoyable together and make for a believable pair of friends.
I could go on and on about the rest of the cast, all of whom are great, or the great costumes, but the takeaway is this- A Boy Called Sailboat is made with passion by very talented people. It’s whimsical, slightly magical tale is a joy to watch, and the sweet-natured atmosphere is going to delight viewers for years to come.
A Boy Called Sailboat (2019) Directed by Cameron Nugent. Written by Cameron Nugent. Starring Julian Atocani Sanchez, Noel Gugliemi, Elizabeth De Razzo, Keanu Wilson, Jake Busey, J.K. Simmons, Rusalia Benavidez.
10 out of 10 Sailboats