‘Urban Hymn’ starts as a riveting and realistic exploration of teens struggling and fighting their way through a hard world that doesn’t want them. It feels raw and true and intriguing. Then one of the girls is asked to join a choir to embrace her talents. That’s when the movie becomes far less interesting.
Letitia Wright stars as Jamie, a young offender in a downward spiral. She lives in a group home and her friends are troublemakers leading her down a dark path. In the first scene, we see them causing a ruckus in the middle of a riot, and it seems like the pair are destined to be nogoodniks for the rest of their lives. It’s pretty standard-issue troubled youth stuff, but executed with a certain flair for harsh realism. Shot with handheld cameras and filled with fraught emotions and relatable infighting, the film begins as a decent entry in the genre. Wright and Isabella Laughland are damn good finds from the casting director, delivering performances that feel truthful, despite all the squealing hysterics.
Of course, a movie can’t just be about teens behaving badly, especially not an inspirational drama. The teens need to be saved. In this case, it’s Jamie who finds what she needs. The great Shirley Henderson (‘Trainspotting’) pops up as a social worker named Kate who takes a shine to Jamie despite her violent path down the dark road. Kate has been through hell in her life (which the actress portrays far better in pained stares and posture than any of the overblown expository dialogue that she’s forced to spit out) and is determined to make a difference. She discovers that Jamie can sing and invites her to join a local choir. The teen dismisses the help and choir as nonsense, but slowly gives it a shot, becomes a star, and learns to better herself.
Right, it’s that old tale. ‘Urban Hymn’ is essentially a subplot from ‘Sister Act’ writ large and played as social realism. It’s first order, queasy manipulation. Thankfully, the script doesn’t always follow the most obvious path. While Jamie is set up to be the only kid who can fight her way out of a hellish existence, she doesn’t do so with screenwriting textbook ease. Reality slaps the inspirational narrative in the face quite a bit throughout the second act, and for a while it starts to feel like the filmmakers are tricking audiences into thinking they’re watching some cheery British awards bait that’s actually something more pained and truthful in disguise. Sadly, the movie doesn’t follow through on that intriguing combination of tones. It quickly descends into pure schmaltz.
That’s likely because ‘Urban Hymn’ wasn’t just supposed to be a redemption story on-screen. The director is Michael Caton-Jones, who was once a major British filmmaker after hits like ‘Rob Roy’ and ‘This Boy’s Life’… and then was banished to television and is stuck in director’s jail following a string of disappointments capped off by ‘Basic Instinct 2’. It’s obvious this isn’t really a personal project, but an attempt for Caton-Jones to prove that he can do inspirational feels. That means ‘Urban Hymn’ plays more like an extended director’s reel than an actual film. It’s more than a little underwhelming. Those who like soapy schmaltz will feel thrown off by all the depressing world-building. Those interested in a film about the pained existence of lost youth will roll their eyes at all the cheese. No one will be satisfied. However, the ambitious film hits some high points. Hopefully the young cast are served better next time. They deserve to be noticed; it just won’t happen with this movie.