Steven Sawalich's directorial debut, Music Within, works marginally well when it stays small. Unfortunately, the life story of disabled-rights activist Richard Pimentel—a personal friend of Sawalich's—begs for a larger-than-life treatment. But whenever Sawalich tries to broaden the focus even slightly, he winds up in over his head. Initially, it's appropriate enough that Pimentel (played with leaden sincerity by Ron Livingston) is the only character of significance in his own story. As he works as a cook, fights for a college scholarship, and is rejected for his lack of life experience, he occupies a fittingly personal space. But once he defiantly joins the Army and heads off to the Vietnam War to gain that experience, the narrowness of his world becomes profoundly noticeable in the way "Vietnam" consists of a few generic thickets and tents. And when other people of note enter his story, they're no better realized.
It's easy to miss this for a while, thanks to a profoundly convincing performance by Michael Sheen (The Queen's Tony Blair) as cerebral-palsy sufferer Art Honeyman, who, for unexplained reasons, is the only person Pimentel can hear properly through the case of tinnitus he brings home from Vietnam. They rapidly strike up a friendship, which leads Pimentel to revelations: Between the institutional prejudice he faces over his deafness and the open revulsion Honeyman faces every day, he's struck by the need for more communication and understanding about disabilities, and he finds the cause his would-be college mentor pointedly said he lacked.
Sheen is often the saving grace of Music Within, thanks to an aggressively profane wit that gives an otherwise tapioca-bland story a little edge. But it still takes nearly the film's entire length to reveal that Honeyman is a celebrated writer in his own right, not just Pimentel's learning tool. Melissa George as Pimentel's girlfriend has an equally thankless role; she gets to sleep with him, beam as he lays down the law about how their relationship will work, then disappear until the movie needs some cheap drama, generated by her whining about how much time he spends on activism. All the bit players, even Honeyman, appear and disappear randomly, only relevant to the story when they're making Pimentel sad or inspired; there's no sense that they're real people when he isn't looking. And while the world is a weirdly unpopulated paper cutout, Pimentel is a dull paper saint, all virtue and no depth. His story is inspiring in the details, but in the execution, it's hard to care how one man changed a country this shallow and unreal.