August Rush (2007) is an adult fairy tale. Nothing in it quite works, but the whole is greater than its individual parts. Treacly and trite and wholly implausible, flawed by the false hopes it offers to orphans hoping for a reunion with their birth parents, it is nonetheless emotionally satisfying in the end. A man and a woman meet briefly one night. She is a promising concert cellist. He is the singer and writer for a rock band. They hit it off. The next morning, fully intending to see each other again, they go their separate ways and do not reconnect. Nine months later the woman gives birth to a child, but her father tells her that it died and she never sees it.
We move forward a decade. A boy in an orphanage claims that his parents talk to him through music that only he can hear. His fellow orphans make fun of him. He runs away to look for his parents, who he is convinced are looking for him. Events begin to propel his parents towards him—though they do not know it. The film moves towards an inevitable reunion in the final scene.
Terrence Howard plays a Department of Human Resources officer who begins to look for the orphan shortly after he runs away. Howard is a distinctive actor, but he has little to do in this film other than to offer looks of concern. Robin Williams plays a Fagin-like character called the Wizard who befriends young boys, teaches them to play musical instruments, and then sends them out on to the streets to play music and bring money back to him. Williams plays the Wizard against his usual type—he lies to and deceives the boys, threatens them, physically intimidates them, yet in certain scenes the film seems to portray him as elfin, likable.
Child actor Freddie Highmore plays the orphan Evan Taylor, later named August Rush when the Wizard recognizes his musical talents. He hopes to find his parents by performing music they will recognize as their own. Highmore's main talent in this film is the ability to look innocent, joyous, and shell-shocked all at the same time. He looks to be around ten years in age, though by the time the film premiered he must have been fifteen years old. As August Rush, Freddie possesses incredible musical talents. He can play any instrument from the first time he encounters it. He composes music that incorporates everything he sees and hears. He's compared to Mozart, though even Mozart took more than a couple of hours to develop his musical genius. Virtually every aspect of this film stretches the limits of one's willingness to believe, but August's musical genius requires the most stretching of all.
The movie succeeds emotionally because it manipulates the emotions of its audience. Who doesn't care about a sweet-faced orphan boy looking for his parents? Who doesn't sympathize with the mother who discovers that the child she thought dead for ten years is actually alive? And who doesn't want the young man who lost the woman who inspired his songs to find her again? We are pushed and cajoled along willingly in this film. We overlook the myriad lapses in logic and reality. We overlook (though can't ignore entirely) the film's dishonesty about orphans seeking their parents. We are sucked in by the schmaltz and the sentiment. This isn't a good film, but there are many worse films, and in its obvious efforts (no pretense about them) to propel the audience towards a tear-stained conclusion, it succeeds.
By adult fairy tale, I mean a category of films such as Stardust (2007), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Pan's Labyrinth (2007). They vary from insipid to profound. Some, such as August Rush and Eternal Sunshine invoke the half-baked mythologies of the New Age and of the psychedelic era. At the least, they avoid or ignore entirely the rules of cause and effect, logic, and science, and they strain to convince us that in this leaden world of despair, miracles can happen. Unfortunately, miracles don't happen—occasional statistically improbable occurrences do, and they are no cause for redemption.