AT A GLANCE
Directed by: Sean McNamara
Starring: Janel Parrish, Carlos PenaVega, Tommy Ragen, Alexa PenaVega, Levi Dylan, Raven-Symoné
Rated: PG-13 for thematic content involving substance abuse, language, some accident images and brief suggestive language
Available July 7 on: Apple TV, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV, Sony PlayStation Video, Fandango NOW and more
Critical rating: 1½ stars out of 4
By Forrest Hartman
There’s nothing like a good music movie. The truly great ones – think “A Star Is Born,” “La La Land,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Almost Famous” and “Whiplash” – reinforce the importance of art. They can be inspiring, tragic, even funny; and they are always moving. But when a music movie stumbles, the result is often a forced, schlocky experience.
With “Mighty Oak,” director Sean McNamara (“Soul Surfer”) and writer Matt Allen (“Four Christmases,” “Soul Surfer”) attempt a spiritual journey aimed at demonstrating the healing power of music. They instead deliver a melodramatic hodgepodge that’s light on authenticity and heavy on melodrama.
The movie centers on Gina (Janel Parrish), the beautiful young manager of an up-and-coming rock band named Army of Love. The group is driven by the vocals and songwriting prowess of Gina’s brother, Vaughn (Levi Dylan). The remaining members — guitarist Pedro (Carlos PenaVega), drummer Alex (Nana Ghana) and bassist DB (Rodney Hicks) — are also extremely close. In fact, Gina has an on-again, off-again romantic relationship with Pedro. Just when it seems that the band is about to explode, the entire crew is involved in a devastating auto accident that leaves Vaughn dead and Gina unable to move on.
Gina emerges from her depression, however, when she meets Oak Scoggins (Tommy Ragen), a 4th grade prodigy who expresses a willingness to reunite Army of Love. The youngster reminds her so much of Vaughn that she can’t say, “No.”
The setup is sweet, but it feels as forced as it sounds … especially when Gina and company begin to view Oak as a new version of Vaughn. Ragen is a real-life musician, and he is extremely talented for an 11-year-old. That said, he is 11, and his age is obvious each time he sings. That makes every sequence with him leading the band play like a novelty act on “America’s Got Talent.” It’s hard to believe Gina – or anyone else – would see Oak as a legitimate savior of the group. Since the entire movie is built on the premise that he is an apt replacement for Vaughn, it’s problematic.
To their credit, Allen and McNamara have bigger ideas on their minds. They are clearly hoping viewers will ponder worthwhile topics ranging from mortality to mental illness. They also want us thinking about the connections that define human beings. These are worthwhile ideas, but they are presented so awkwardly that it’s tough to buy in, as many viewers will be busy analyzing the maudlin plot contrivances instead.
Ragen, Parrish, PenaVega and the rest of the cast are charming enough, but some elements of the story are underdeveloped while others batter the audience like a sledgehammer. One doesn’t watch “Mighty Oak” so much as he/she is manipulated by it. Some filmmakers – Steven Spielberg chief amongst them – can get away with this type of manipulation. But Spielberg is nuanced. With “Mighty Oak,” one can feel McNamara and Allen tugging at the heartstrings, and it’s more uncomfortable than effective.
Since Ragen is a charismatic presence and a talented musician, it feels curmudgeonly to critique his coming-out party. But the cruel fact is, “Mighty Oak” isn’t the best stage for his gifts. It’s easy to imagine him maturing into a formidable artist. When that happens, this film may be remembered as his big break, but it will not be remembered as his seminal work … nor that of anyone else involved.