3 stars

Cast: Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Chris O'Dowd

Director: Wayne Blair

Running time: 103 minutes

Rated: PG-13 for sexuality, a scene of war violence, some language, thematic elements and smoking

"The Sapphires" shouldn't gleam as brightly as it does.

The up-from-struggle story of a group of Outback Aboriginal girls in the late '60s who become a pop group follows the predictable form of movies like these, from "Dreamgirls" to "The Commitments." All the sharp edges -- the racism, the love problems, the intergroup squabbles, the Vietnam War -- have been whittled down to easily overcome obstacles.

But there's such a sense of joy in the performances that it's hard not to be won over.

Gail (Deborah Mailman, "Rabbit-Proof Fence," "Bran Nue Dae"), Julie (the ebullient "Australian Idol" runner-up Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) are three sisters living in small-town Australia who want to compete in a local talent contest -- even though the woman who's running it clearly wants to discourage them. But the down-on-his-luck piano player she has assisting her, Dave (a wonderfully affable Chris O'Dowd), sees something in them, even in their rudimentary take on country music they used for the contest.

He talks them into letting him be their manager and gets them to switch over to American R&B. With their more citified cousin, Kay (Shari Sebbens), who's dealing with identity issues, as a fourth member, they take on this new musical personality. Ultimately, they end up auditioning for some American military brass for performances in Vietnam where events take a darker turn.

Based very loosely on a true story -- screenplay writer Tony Briggs' mom was one of the real Sapphires -- the film pulses with a heartfelt energy. That's largely due to the fiery presence of Mailman (who might finally get her due after years of solid work in Australian film and TV), the vocal strength of Mauboy (why hasn't she had hit singles up here already?) and the lanky charm of O'Dowd, who might have just made himself star with this role.

Director Wayne Blair keeps things moving quickly so you don't have time to quibble that some of the songs chosen to cover -- "I'll Take You There" for instance -- weren't yet around in 1968. Or that the inclusion of O'Dowd seems a sop to mainstream audiences who otherwise might pass on a movie about four Aboriginal young women.

Yet, when they open up and sing, the only question that might pop into your head is: "How soon can I get the soundtrack?"