Judge Jim Thomas had to be reassured this movie had nothing to do with vampires.
Happiness is an art. Screwing up is a science.
What happens when you take a painfully predictable plot and combine it with strikingly real dialogue and solid performances? In this case, the answer is Sparkle, a movie that is more enjoyable than it has any right to be.
Sam Sparks (Shaun Evans, Being Julia) is a young man from Liverpool desperately wanting to seek his fortune in the Big City (as we're in England, the part of Big City is played by London). An opportunity presents itself when Vince (Bob Hoskins) has to put his father into a nursing home, leaving him with a vacant London flat. Shaun jumps at the chance, but to his dismay/horror, his mother Jill (Lesley Manville, Vera Drake), an aspiring lounge singer, decides to move with him. Vince is delighted at this development, having long harbored a crush on Jill.
Once in London, Sam finds himself in a lousy job, but his dimples and engaging manner catches the eye of Sheila (Stockard Channing, The West Wing), a PR executive who finds a place for Sam in her office as well as her bedroom. Sam finds himself quite enjoying life, until he encounters Kate (Amanda Ryan, Shameless), a free-spirited young girl who is everything he ever wanted. Alas, impediments abound for Twue Wuv: Not only is Sam still seeing Sheila, but Kate has a secret or two of her own that can best be described as "awkward." As all of that plays out, Vince searches for the courage to admit his feelings for Jill, while Jill longs for her big break.
Even though you pretty much have the plot worked out around the 20-minute mark, this is a charming, almost beguiling movie. A lot of the credit goes to writing/directing team of Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, who maintain a brisk pace while at the same time giving the actors room to maneuver. While the movie does perhaps rely on a few too many Dickensian coincidences, it's gratifying that none of the major plot points depend on a character's inexplicable stupidity. However, it's the performances that really make the movie, uh, sparkle. Shaun Evans has an disarming, effortless charm about him, kind of like Hugh Grant back when Hugh Grant wasn't trying so hard to be Hugh Grant. Evans also has great chemistry with both Stockard Channing (still smoking hot, by the way) and Amanda Ryan. Lesley Manville manages to make Jill endearing without descending into a quirky-mother-of-the-damned stereotype as Sam's mother, and Bob Hoskins has an unexpectedly touching turn as the gentle Vince. Even the supporting roles are strong; Anthony Head (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) steals a few scenes as Kate's gay uncle. About the only criticism you can level at the performances is that Channing's British accent is a wee bit dodgy; however, they finesse that nicely by mentioning that she spent part of her childhood in the United States.
The title is a bit nondescript. In early drafts, Sam was an electrician, which in England is called a "Spark." At some point in the development process, he stopped being an electrician, so the changed his name to Sparks, and made "Sparkle" his mom's stage name.
We reviewed a screener disc, so your technical mileage may vary, but overall video and audio are strong. The surround track in particular is strong, making good use of the incidental music. Extras are exceedingly slight, with a brief (under 5 minutes) making-of featurette, an even shorter amalgam of cast interviews, and a theatrical trailer. Hunsinger and Hunter are a pair of up-and-coming filmmakers, and a rarity in that they share both writing and directing duties, so a commentary track could have been a valuable addition.
Sparkle's performances and dialogue focus on real emotions rather than easy jokes. That in itself makes it a refreshing change of pace. It's a low-key affair without a lot of fireworks, but that's one of the reasons it works. Not guilty.
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