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'The Sapphires' review: Charming Aboriginals

From left, Chris O'Dowd as Dave, Deborah Mailman

From left, Chris O'Dowd as Dave, Deborah Mailman as Gail, Shari Sebbens as Kay, Jessica Mauboy as Julie, and Miranda Tapsell as Cynthia in a scene from "The Sapphires." Credit: AP

Based on a true story, "The Sapphires" follows four Aboriginal women who in 1968 form a singing group and find fame, of a sort, by entertaining the troops in Vietnam. It's a sweet little tale, and that co-writer Tony Briggs is the son of one of the real-life singers adds to the heart-tugging. In the end, though, it's not quite enough to sustain a feature-length film.

Based on Briggs' stage play and ably directed by Wayne Blair, "The Sapphires" deserves credit mostly for its casting. The singers are played not by uniformly svelte Hollywood types but by Aboriginal actresses of varying heights, shapes and skin-tones, making them believable and likable underdogs. Gail (Deborah Mailman) is the group's hard-charging leader, Julie (Jessica Mauboy) is the youngest member, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) is the mouthiest and Kay (Shari Sebbens) is surely the most interesting, one of a "stolen generation" of Aboriginal children swiped from their homes and raised as white.

They're all appealing, though none more so than Chris O'Dowd, the Irish actor who played the cute cop in "Bridesmaids." Here he plays Dave Lovelace, a boozy musician in a flyspeck Australian outpost -- don't ask how an Irishman got there -- who hears the quartet at a talent contest. Intrigued by their harmonies but appalled that four black women are singing Country and Western ("It's just wrong"), Dave appoints himself manager and begins shaping them into something like the Supremes.

"The Sapphires" borrows a little too obviously from recent girl-group movies -- the imperious matriarch in "Sparkle," the power-jockeying in "Dreamgirls" -- and tries to cover its thin spots with whiffs of danger (a mid-show bombing in Vietnam) or topical events (the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr.). "The Sapphires" barely reaches the finish line, and it's mostly O'Dowd's disheveled charm that keeps it going.

PLOT In the late 1960s, an all-girl Aboriginal singing group gets an unlikely gig: Entertaining troops in Vietnam.

RATING PG-13 (mild language)

CAST Chris O'Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Shari Sebbens


BOTTOM LINE A likable but wispy runner-up to "Dreamgirls" and "Sparkle." The charming O'Dowd ("Bridesmaids") makes it watchable.

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