Mighty Oak favours clichés, odd characterisation and unlikely mystical revelations over what could have been the inspiring story of a 10-year-old rock n’roll prodigy.
When the most anticipated films of the summer are being postponed, every new release is an exciting event, even if it comes with a cheesy tagline like “It Was His Music. But Was it His Soul?”. That movie is Mighty Oak, and the tagline has to do with its young protagonist, Oak Scoggins (Tommy Ragen) – or, as we later come to know him, Mighty Oak. On paper, this is the story of a band manager (Gina, played by Pretty Little Liars‘s Janel Parrish) who loses her rocker brother Vaughn (Levi Dylan) in a car accident.
Ten years later, she meets a 10-year-old musical prodigy who inspires her to start living again and reunite the band. Keeping in mind that the leading actor, Tommy Ragen, is the real-life musical prodigy who inspired the movie, this sounded exactly like the kind of School of Rock-like feel-good film that could cheer us up and make us dream in these very challenging times. Unfortunately, Mighty Oak was not interested in telling this compelling tale, and favoured a much weirder, much less intriguing angle instead.
It needs to be said that the very best part of the film is Tommy Ragen, who is not only a talented musician, but also a great thespian. Mighty Oak is the first film the 12-year-old actor has ever starred in, yet he tackles the role of Oak with enough confidence and charisma to temporarily rescue us from the weird coincidences, the corny lines and all the things that don’t seem to make much sense in this movie. Unfortunately, neither his compelling performance nor the catchy tunes he sings can make us forget about this music dramedy’s major flaw – Mighty Oak simply doesn’t care about the story it wants to tell.
This musical tale begins with a quick crash course on Gina’s brother’s unfortunately named band, Army of Love – so quick, in fact, that it’s over before it’s begun. In less than ten minutes of screentime, the band has already played on a stage, interacted with Gina’s adorable though narratively irrelevant dog, been asked to open for Arcade Fire and lost the lead singer in a painfully glowy slow-mo car crash that never really has any effect on us. In a film that revolves around a girl’s attempt to recover from the loss of her brother Vaughn, the lack of screentime devoted to both said brother and his band builds up a wall between Gina and the audience, failing to make us interested in her troubles.
Since we never really develop any attachment towards what seems to be everyone’s favourite band of teenagers, we don’t feel nostalgic when a kid shows up, ten years (though, really, eight minutes) later, who seems to be the perfect replacement for Gina’s long-lost brother. What we do feel is puzzled at the unlikely scenario that a band of twenty-somethings would be so thrilled at the prospect of having a ten-year-old kid as their frontman, and that crowds of Army of Love fans would share their enthusiasm about that unlikely choice.
We’re talking about a film that really insists on letting you know how “down with the kids” it is, so much so that Green Day is referred to as “that old punk band” – though it’s also ok for Oak to wear Keith Richards and Jimy Hendrix t-shirts, if only for some extra rock n’roll vibes. In fact, Oak might be the youngest character in the film, but he’s also pretty much the only grown-up, as well as the only one who gets a proper introduction. Not only do we really feel for him, but Ragen’s natural charm gives us some genuinely endearing, uplifting moments that make us overlook the odd behaviour displayed by his friends and family, from his “wannabe bully” schoolmates to his one-dimensional mother. In fact, Mighty Oak does eventually become quite enjoyable, with a welcome change mainly brought by the band’s energetic performance and the rock n’roll tunes they play with Oak. Unfortunately, it’s precisely at that point that the film takes a turn for the weird.
Halfway through the movie, just when you think you have this film figured out, something happens that changes it completely, moving towards a mystical direction it really didn’t need. This move will take you further away from Oak – the one character you actually want to find out more about, and more towards Vaughn – everyone’s favourite subject, except yours. It’s only a matter of minutes: Gina notices odd similarities between Vaughn and Oak, the word “reincarnation” is uttered and the film becomes … In the words of British band member Darby (Ben Milliken), “…a bit out there, innit?”.
And it gets even worse than that, but let me stop there. Suffice it to say that Mighty Oak goes from being a flawed though at times enjoyable drama about a likeable, charismatic character to one of those movies you watch because “it’s so bad, it’s good“. The odd coincidences, the underdeveloped characters, the clichés, the unfortunate lines, the predictable twists, the kind of hybrid-genre experimentation that really doesn’t work… Mighty Oak has it all. Most of all, it doesn’t really have anything to say, and that is a real shame. So, watch it for the catchy music and for Tommy Ragen: you’re definitely going to see more of him soon. But don’t expect much more than a flawed music dramedy with one too many clichés.