Blending sass and pathos, the Belgian comedy "The Over the Hill Band" ("Meisjes") has a neatly conceived premise. Like Stephen Walker's delicate nonfiction portrait "Young@Heart," it's a genuine heart-tugger about senior citizens rediscovering their youth by singing pop music; like Craig Brewer's crowdpleasing "Hustle & Flow," it sympathizes with a struggling rap artist without glossing over his flaws. Unfortunately, "The Over the Hill Band" isn't nearly compelling as either of its predecessors, but it has enough gentle humor and bittersweet vibes to capture the same celebratory spirit.
Directed by Geoffrey Enthoven from a script by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem ("Moscow, Belgium") and Chris Craps, the story follows kindly 70-year-old Claire (Marilou Mermans), a woman coping with the onset of senility in the wake of her husband's death. While her supportive married son Michel (Lucas van den Eijnde) manages Claire's bank account and her increasing medical needs, his thuggish brother Sid (Jan Van Looveren), the black sheep of the family, buries himself in alcoholism and a failed music career.
Desperate to find a creative outlet of her own, Claire proposes she and Sid help each other out by starting a band together. Although prone to expletive-laden R&B tracks rather than the classics Claire prefers, the desperate Sid eventually decides to welcome his mother and her fellow church choir singers into his makeshift studio. Joined by her two close pals, the uptight Lut (Lut Tomsin) and spunky redhead Mavda (Lea Couzin) -- they all performed in the pop trio "The Sisters of Love" decades earlier -- Claire finds a hilarious new creative outlet. When Sid starts laying down the beats and encouraging his older bandmates to get down, the initial mismatch eventually gives way to an amusing cross-generational chemistry.
Of course we've been here before, but Enthoven guides the pieces well. The setup of a septuagenarian shaking her booty could easily devolve into farce, but instead he manages the light comic effect of finding a way for two sensibilites to harmonize together. (Listening to a sampling of her son's work, Claire responds not to his rap verses but instead the looped vocals of the chorus: "It's quite tuneful!")
Soon the women are fully integrated into Sid's uneasy world of aspiring musicianship, passing joints and grooving to bass lines as they dream of upcoming performances. Claire's blossoming youth bring a rejuvenating romance as she falls for dashing piano man Arthur (Michel Israel) and forgets about her encroaching medical problems. Eventually, "The Over the Hill Band" must become that movie, the sob story in which an elderly person must confront the inevitability of her demise. That climax has a realistic edge, but it also feels like something of a cop-out. Here, the tragedy of death encroaches on the movie's ability to evoke the thrill of living.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Finally hitting U.S. theaters about two years after its initial festival run, "The Over the Hill Band" seems unlikely to become a breakout hit when it opens on one screen at The Village East in Manhattan this weekend. But that's its second booking after playing in Baltimore last week, and distributor NeoClassics Films Ltd. has a dozen dates scheduled around the country (with a focus on retirement-friendly cities in Arizona and Florida). It will probably find some appreciative audiences before hitting DVD.
criticWIRE grade: B