So named because he was obsessed with – and able to draw – the eponymous vessel from a miraculously tender age (according to his parents, before he’d ever actually seen one). We find our hero in bleak circumstances. A house permanently listing to one side, held up by a single, much-vaunted stick (one of Nugent’s more delightfully on-the-nose visual metaphors, of which there are several), and a gravely ill grandmother, for whom he vows to write the greatest song ever using his new acquisition: a beat-up ukulele. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say he succeeds, but this film does nothing in the way you expect.
Faintly reminiscent of the sweet-yet-macabre surrealism of Quentin Dupieux’s similarly sparse 'Rubber', via the super-saturated symmetry of Wes Anderson, this is a cosily off-kilter curio, which even as it constantly wrongfoots, never causes discomfort. This is quite the achievement given the film’s unrelenting strangeness and occasional menace, but every character is possessed of a kind of earnest innocence, sweet but never saccharine, which creates a sense of the world being drawn by our diminutive hero. A barnstorming turn by newcomer Julian Atocani Sanchez, Sailboat is our eye and our narrator, and not since the likes of Lenny Abrahamson’s 'Room' have we been ushered into a child’s world with such uncanny accuracy, transporting us to a simpler place and allowing us to us to enjoy some blunt yet elegant truths from the place such things always seem to come: out the mouths of babes.
None is more acutely felt than Sailboat’s appraisal of people’s response to his grandmother’s song (religious in fervour, his audiences – quite rightly, one could argue – treating the composer of the greatest song ever as an almost messianic figure): he observes that before his opus, everyone was quiet around him, and now, they’re still quiet. But maybe there are different types of quiet. It’s not breaking any new ground for a piece of art to examine the process of making art, but some phrases capture the process of creation better than most. “Sometimes you do a thing for someone, and everyone thinks it’s for everyone, but it’s really for someone. Everyone just forgot.” From out the mouths of babes, indeed.
'A Boy Called Sailboat' eloquently enquires of us, why make art? What drives us to do it and who is it ultimately for? Given this fact it’s not surprising Nugent has ensnared so many fine artists to help him tell his determinedly odd tale. The ever reliable JK Simmons appears in a tiny yet pivotal capacity, and the supporting cast is a roster of standouts, from Jake Busey as Sailboat’s trenchantly ridiculous teacher, to Noel Gugliemi and Elizabeth De Razzo as his peculiarly adorable parents. The latter three share most of the film’s laughs, Gugliemi in particular doing sterling work with a bearded dragon as a novelty pest control device (though if he wants an effective predator of wood ants, he’d do well to go for a smaller lizard).
Overall, Nugent has crafted an unlikely gem, amusing, gently affecting, exquisitely scored and replete with eminently quotable lines. For a debut feature it has an incredibly strong sense of personality, and an intensely personable one at that.