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Rock and roll reincarnation – ‘Mighty Oak’

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Movies are rarely kind to prodigies.

Most of the time, when we meet an ultra-talented child on film, we quickly learn about the multitude of difficulties faced by that child. Whether they’re a brilliant mathematician or a chess master or an amazing musician, these kid geniuses unfailingly face significant personal obstacles apart from their gifts.

How those problems are handled, both by the filmmakers and by the characters within the narrative, defines the sort of movie you get.

“Mighty Oak,” a film directed by Sean McNamara from a screenplay by Matt Allen, handles its child genius – in this case, a rock and roll prodigy – with a good degree of care. While the young man’s life is marked with tragedy, that tragedy is offset by a sense of connection – connection to the people around him … and to the universe.

It isn’t the sort of story to get bogged down in negativity; the filmmakers go out of their way to generate a feel-good vibe, an effort helped greatly by a charming cast and some solid musical offerings. It’s a warm and welcoming film, a scrappy, scruffy underdog of a movie that, despite a few issues, will likely leave you with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.

Gina Jackson (Janel Parrish, “To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You”) is the manager of an up-and-coming rock band called Army of Love. The group – fronted by her brother Vaughn (Levi Dylan in his feature debut) – is on the cusp of hitting it big. Gina has landed Vaughn and the crew – lead guitarist and kinda-sorta Gina love interest Pedro (Carlos PenaVega, TV’s “The Loud House”), no-nonsense bassist Alex (Nana Ghana, “Black Licorice”) and inexplicably Australian drummer Darby (Ben Milliken, TV’s “Bosch”) – a potentially game-changing gig opening for Arcade Fire.

And then, on the way home from a gig, their van is hit head-on by a drunk driver, killing Vaughn and shattering Gina’s life.

Fast-forward a decade. Gina is still struggling to come to terms with Vaughn’s death, gambling and drinking to excess. The others have moved on and gotten regular jobs. But it all changes when D.B. (Rodney Hicks, “Rent: Live”), owner of the café that served as Army of Love’s primary hangout, meets a new friend of his daughter Emma (Gianna Harris in her feature debut).

Ten-year-old Oak Scoggins (Tommy Ragen in his film debut) has just moved into one of the upstairs apartments with his struggling mother Valerie (Alexa PenaVega, TV’s “The Casagrandes”). Oak is a guitar player, one whose talent is so prodigious that D.B. loans him a guitar – a guitar that once belonged to Vaughn Jackson. Gina is enraged that D.B. would give Vaughn’s guitar away … until she hears Oak play.

His talent and his heart are such that Gina becomes convinced that Oak is the reincarnation of her brother. She reaches out to the other band members and starts working toward an Army of Love reunion – one where Oak is the new front man. But even as the group starts inching toward success, Gina’s obsession with the idea that Oak IS Vaughn begins to negatively impact her and those around her.

But when still more tragedy strikes, it is left to her to try and hold this makeshift family together, come what may.

There’s an underlying charm to “Mighty Oak” that is quite engaging. The film’s relentless positivity – even in the face of its more tragic elements – makes it a tremendously easy film to watch. Does it tug heavily at the heartstrings? Indeed it does, and unapologetically so – that’s a big part of the appeal.

These sort of prodigy-centered stories make real demands of their stars; we have to buy the child’s aptitude for the film to have any chance of working. It’s doubly important in a case like this one, where everything revolves around musical talent – if the kid can’t play, there’s no movie. Of course, if you don’t have someone like Tommy Ragen on board, you probably don’t even try to make the movie in the first place. But they do – and he is a delight. Ragen might be making his film debut, but he’s already got three albums to his name. He’s a legit talent; the scenes with him and the band (including a handful of his own original songs) are among the film’s highlights.

Now, it isn’t all songs and sunshine. Some bad things befall our characters; tragic conflicts arise throughout. But even in the bleaker moments, there’s a relentless vibe of positivity; those streaks of good feeling keep the film from ever getting too sad.

One might argue that that refusal to allow things to get too dark is a flaw. Some could find the chipperness a bit grating. And there’s no doubt that the film gets a bit shaggy in spots, with a subplot or two that never quite resolve themselves in a fully satisfactory manner. Still, the music is good and everyone seems to be having fun – there’s never much doubt that things will work themselves out, and sometimes, you just like knowing it’s all going to be all right.

The cast does solid work. Parrish serves as the anchor point for the rest of the cast; her performance is the one around which the others orbit. As far as Ragen’s performance, well – as an actor, he’s a heck of a musician. He’s clearly inexperienced, but there’s a raw presence there that largely makes up for it. The others in the ensemble all give solid performances, though no one really stands out – the truth is that the musical moments are what make this movie pop, and those are all presented cleanly and stylishly.

“Mighty Oak” isn’t groundbreaking cinema, but it isn’t meant to be. This is a movie whose intent is simply to entertain, to tell a gentle and positive story while showcasing the musical gifts of a very talented young man. And on those terms, it is definitely a success.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Saturday, 06 June 2020 13:15

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