Pure of heart and determinedly precocious, Evan (Freddie Highmore) first appears in Kristen Sheridan’s dreadful mishmash melodrama literally conducting the wind. As grasses sway and his cherubic face tilts toward the sun, Evan asserts that he is phantasmagorically “open” to the music that will reunite him with his parents — who, by the way, abandoned him at birth. “All you have to do is listen,” he insists, arms outstretched and all of nature apparently at his command.
While he’s not a princess per se, Evan serves as eager emotional center of the utterly conventional August Rush (“I believe in music,” he helpfully pronounces, “the way that some people believe in fairy tales”). And if he doesn’t exactly get squirrels and birds to service him, he is possessed of astounding musical genes/genius, able to hear music in every sound around him (trees rustling, tires hitting potholes, buses slamming their brakes), as well as a fierce faith in his own rightness. Dismissing the taunts of his fellow orphans (bullies who have their own reasons for not believing in the life’s goodness), he decides to leave the rurualish “Home for Boys” where he’s lived for 11 years and head off to the big city, where he’s sure he’ll find his destiny.
Of course Evan’s faith is not misplaced, though the route back to his parents is circuitous and silly. And the connection will be made through music, as his parents are both literally musical. As flashbacks reveal — and reveal again — mom Lyla (Keri Russell) is a world-class cellist and dad Louis (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) sings, very earnestly, in his brother’s sad-pop band. They share a life-altering night on a rooftop, following a seemingly chance encounter at an after-show party near Washington Square Park, their shared enthusiasm for “music” granting them reason enough to have unprotected sex (that, and their scintillating conversation: “What’s your story, Lyla?” “I don’t know, I’m just me”). Less memorable than unthinking, the hook-up leads to the end you already know: Evan’s conception.
Still, obstacles must be had. Lyla’s stage-father (William Sadler) refuses to let her see Louis again (and for whatever reason, mostly pantomimed in montagey half-scenes, she obeys), then cruelly lies to her following a car accident (for which he is at least partly responsible, as she runs out to the street, hugely pregnant, after an argument with him). Believing her baby is dead, Lyla gives up playing music, gives up looking for Louis; meanwhile, he quits his band, makes a bunch of money doing something where he wears a suit, and doesn’t think to google Lyla for 11 years).
His parents’ emotional and narrative disarray offer only minor distractions from Evan’s plot, which is increasingly implausible and eventually troubling. In NYC, Evan thrills to the street sounds (and yes, conducts while standing on the sidewalk, to remind you of his gift, in case you’ve dared to forget), then finds another musically inclined child in the park. Arthur (Leon G. Thomas III) plays the guitar and sings for coins, which he duly hands over to black-cowboy-hatted Wizard (Robin Williams, playing Fagin by way of Bono, with a dash of Van Morrison, of all people). Arthur also hands over Evan, who plays the guitar perfectly as soon as he sees it, inspiring Wizard to swap out Arthur for Evan. The decision makes a depressing social sense that the film never acknowledges, but rather recasts as a matter of differing degrees of “talent.” Wizard tells the newcomer, “I’ll teach you everything I know for free,” immediately reclassifying Arthur as a second-tier earner, understanding the white, shorter, dimple-faced kid so very plainly more attractive to out-of-town, corn-fed-looking tourists.
Wizard is odious, but Evan has the great good luck of being a veritable Magical Negro magnet. Everywhere he turns in the big city, he finds one, from Arthur and social worker Richard (Terrence Howard) to a beatific child singer named Hope (Jamia Simone Nash) and a reverend named James (Mykelti Williamson). As soon as he hears Evan play the organ for the first time, James enrolls him at Juilliard — just long enough so Evan learns to read notes and write a brilliant symphony to be played in Central Park, thus leaving him “open” to be heard by his suddenly re-opened parents, who both come back into Evan’s plot from two different directions.
While such contrivance is to be expected in a fantasy film, especially one designed for families (even if parents do have to explain the part about Lyla’s dad’s lie concerning her dead baby), the presumptions about how that fantasy works are at least disconcerting. Highmore, best known for playing soft-voiced sidekicks to Johnny Depp, here smiles and smiles as the camera circles and circles, a repeated image designating at once his basic, on-the-ground existence and his spiritual transportation through music. Facilitated by so many selfless black folks, Evan’s journey is also far too familiar.