I must confess, Freddie Highmore is starting to scare me a bit (in a good way, though).

The London native is 15 years old now but still has a child’s looks and voice. When he first came to my attention opposite Johnny Depp in both Finding Neverland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I put him down as a cute kid who was astutely cast for his gentle demeanor and wouldn’t generate much screen presence on his own, an impression reinforced by his forgettable work in A Good Year and Arthur and the Invisibles.

His performance in August Rush has totally overturned my first impression. In this movie, he plays a musical savant growing up in a New York state orphanage, and not only does his American accent sound dead convincing, but he also looks natural and lit up from within while playing the guitar, the organ, and conducting an orchestra (even though he isn’t really playing the instruments). Clearly this kid is a real actor in the making. What a shame he’s in such a silly movie. He plays Evan Taylor, the result of a one-night stand between an Irish rock singer (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) and a classical cellist (Keri Russell) whose domineering dad (William Sadler) signs baby Evan over to the state without her knowledge. Eleven years later, Evan’s belief that he’s still being sought by his parents leads him to escape from his home and find refuge in New York City.

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Old-time screenwriters Nick Castle and James V. Hart pass off unfathomable coincidences as story developments. Evan, who tends to wander off when he hears music, falls into the hands of a Fagin-like exploiter of homeless kids who renames the boy “August Rush.” The bad guy is played by Robin Williams in cowboy duds and a soul patch, which might have worked if Williams hadn’t fumbled the role by chewing the scenery and signaling the character’s evil intentions to the audience. Worse is to follow, though, as the kid finds his way from peril to safety to peril again, and somehow despite leaving no paper trail gets admitted to Juilliard and composes a piece for the New York Philharmonic in the space of a few months. The DELETE goes through ludicrous contortions to place Evan in danger on the day of his big concert and put both of his parents at the concert separately. Director Kirsten Sheridan (the 31-year-old daughter of renowned Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan) drowns the material in cheesy lyricism and crocodile tears.

It doesn’t help that Evan’s musical composition, actually written by Hans Zimmer and Mark Mancina, is a New Age piece of junk. Good music makes us feel that the story is worth the trouble. As proof, look no further than the achingly beautiful songs in Once, an infinitely wiser and more heartfelt movie with Irish roots that is also about love, music, and the mystical randomness of life. That film played for five months in Dallas without ever reaching Fort Worth. (Tell us why, Fox Searchlight Pictures.) Instead, we’re stuck with this fraudulent tearjerker taking up space in our multiplexes. We can only hope it won’t be here for long.

 August Rush
Starring Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Directed by Kirsten Sheridan. Written by Nick Castle and James V. Hart. Rated PG.