Your enjoyment of "The Sapphires" will be directly proportional to how much you enjoy Chris O'Dowd (the police officer in "Bridesmaids," for those yet uninitiated). That's not to say he's the only point of enjoyment here - on the contrary. Actresses Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, and Miranda Tapsell, as three Australian Aboriginal sisters in the 1960s starting up a girl group - they soon find themselves touring Vietnam for the pleasure of lonely, horny servicemen - are infectious (as for the plot, think "Sparkle" with a minor political interest.) And as for their light skinned sister, snatched up at a young age by government officials as part of a program to train (brainwash) certain indigenous peoples to "learn how to be white," Shari Sebbens brings a quiet depiction of tragedy to her role; hiding behind stoic, unsure faces where many others would tragically overact.
But Mr. O'Dowd dominates first-time director Wayne Blair's cleanly composed frames; his costars quiet talents be damned. We find him drunken, in the back of a car seat, with crooked sunglasses, looking like a lost Blues Brother. Throughout montages, where he shifts the girls' country songs into the soul-style music they excel at, he mugs for the camera as if this were a talk show. If there's been a more nakedly ingratiating performance in recent months, I haven't seen it.
And it's a shame, because there's a really good movie hidden beneath "The Sapphires," fighting and failing to break into the surface. As Dowd barks at the girls to "sing blacker," and then buckles in fear of their black superior officer in the army, you can't help but wonder: "Is this a look at Vietnam-era racial politics, disguised as a soul-music exploitation movie; or is this a soul-music exploitation movie, disguised as an investigation into Vietnam-era racial politics?" But then you reach the ending, all singing and dancing, complete with O'Dowd grinning for the camera, you realize the latter half won out.