It’s surprising that with this particular combination of plot and characters, “The Sapphires” isn’t an animated Disney movie. It belongs to the world of movies that’s given us “Mulan” and “Cinderella” — the world where unexpected, unrealistic things can happen, but it doesn’t matter, because we’re desperate for the characters to win and shove a metaphorical middle finger in the faces of their haters. Plot holes and cheesy dialogues can go suck it; “The Sapphires” is a real-life fairytale with which we can’t help but fall in love.

The Sapphires

B+
The Weinstein Company
Michigan Theater


That ‘real-life’ aspect — the fact that this movie is based on a true story — is a large part of what makes the film so endearing. Written by first-time duo Keith Thompson and Tony Briggs, the film is based on the story of an Australian Aboriginal four-girl group formed by Briggs’s mother in 1968. The outfit consists of sisters Gail and Julie (Deborah Mailman and Jessica Mauboy of “Bran Nue Dae”) and their cousins Cynthia and Kay (newcomers Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens).

Victims of racial prejudice in their hometown, the girls are determined to overcome the color of their skin and showcase their musical talents to the world. During a singing contest at a local bar, the girls meet a drunk, Irish talent scout named Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd, “Bridesmaids”). Julie convinces Dave to train the group for a job singing for the U.S. troops in Vietnam. Once they get the gig, Dave agrees to be their manager and the girls shoot to fame among the troops almost overnight. While their success comes swift and easy, it’s marred by underlying tensions of race and war.

In his debut feature, director Wayne Blair displays a remarkable grasp of the themes and emotions that make an ideal movie cocktail. They’re also the reason why this story plays out like a Disney fairytale — its protagonists are suppressed by race and gender, they’re determined to overcome their shortcomings; they take a risk with a job in a war zone; they sing like angels; they find their Prince Charmings in the most unlikely places and return home as heroes. “The Sapphires” is a classic underdog story that we’ve seen hundreds of time, but it stands out because it’s made well.

And like every underdog story, the audience has an emotional stake in the characters’ success. On this front, Mailman, Mauboy, Tapsell and Sebbens don’t disappoint in making their onscreen personas headstrong and loveable. Blair must’ve scrounged the vast expanse of Australia to handpick these four musical gems. They embody “The Sapphires” in every way, and their soulful voices entertain the audiences even when the plot falls flat and predictable. They’re helped a lot by O’Dowd, who gives one of the most surprisingly refreshing performances of the year as the group’s clumsy, messed-up and hilarious manager. Who knew Kristen Wiig’s adorkable love interest from “Bridesmaids” had a little bit of James Brown in him?

“The Sapphires” benefits from Blair and Briggs’s combined experience with musical theater. They know when to throw the jokes, which songs to dispatch and when to employ war and prejudice as tearjerkers. Having adapted the script from Briggs’s play of the same name, the writers capitalize on their knowledge of the audience’s response to this story by further emphasizing the hilarity and sensitivity of certain scenes.

Though not a cinematic marvel, “The Sapphires” hits all the right notes at all the right times. Let’s face it — no matter how predictable it may be, a well made underdog story like this one just never fails to tug on our heartstrings.

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