For a first-time filmmaker, getting an A-list actor as major as Anne Hathaway to produce and star in your movie is unquestionably a big win; that shouldn’t mean, however, that the movie should work for its star, rather than the other way around. Unfortunately, such is the case with writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland’s well-intentioned debut, “Song One,” a gentle, music-themed movie that’s practically a love letter to its Oscar-winning headliner.
Hathaway plays Franny, a PhD candidate in anthropology studying nomadic tribes in Morocco. When she gets a call from her mother (Mary Steenburgen) that her brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield), an aspiring musician living in Brooklyn, has gotten into a terrible accident that has left him in a coma, Franny returns home to her estranged family.
Franny hasn’t spoken to Henry in six months because she disagrees with his decision to drop out of college and pursue music full-time. She’s ignored his efforts to reach out and share his music with her; apparently, her disapproval is so great she can’t even voice support for her brother on his own career path. Upon coming home and seeing him comatose, Franny appears to regret their argument, but the film doesn’t hold her accountable for having treated him poorly — instead, it celebrates that Franny has come home and healed the wounds of familial conflict, while failing to fully acknowledge that she inflicted them in the first place.
Not knowing whether her brother will ever wake up, Franny tries to get to know him and understand his world indirectly, using his journal as an unofficial guidebook to hip Brooklyn hotspots and visiting all of his favorite hangouts. Barker-Froyland clearly loves New York City, and she knows how to photograph it. The intimate venues that Franny explores are all wonderfully specific and strange, and the bright lights of Manhattan, hazy and soft from this side of the bridge, render all of Brooklyn romantic and magical.
In the journal, Franny also finds a ticket to see Henry’s favorite indie musician, James Forester (Johnny Flynn). After the show, she finds James and tearfully explains her brother’s fandom, and then gives him a CD featuring one of Henry’s songs. Flynn imbues the awkward exchange with a fair amount of discomfort. Nevertheless, James visits Henry in the hospital the next day and begins a romance with Franny.
In the development of this central relationship, the film treats James as just another person lucky enough to be in orbit around Franny — he doesn’t assist her emotional journey so much as she becomes his much-needed muse. Flynn, perfectly cast as the sensitive British indie-rocker dreamboat, is a bright spot in a weak movie, and he manages over and over to steal the spotlight from Hathaway (despite Barker-Froyland’s best efforts).
In one scene, while Franny and James are having an intimate dinner, two giggling, starstruck girls walk over. They look like an Urban Outfitters window display mannequins come to life — manufactured Brooklyn bohemians — and one of them wants James to sign her iPod. Even after the girls leave, their extreme contrast to the earthy Hathaway still hangs in the air. Barker-Froyland uses little signifiers — Franny’s Moroccan necklace, Henry’s gramophone, oversized headphones rather than ear buds, etc. — to authenticate her hipster characters, but it doesn’t quite click. Ultimately, they’re just empty signifiers that deprive the movie of its realism.
But its saving grace is the music, written by Rilo Kiley songstress Jenny Lewis with Johnathan Rice (known together as duo Jenny and Johnny). The musical performances capture the right vibe where the overwritten screenplay doesn’t, and there are some genuinely lovely tracks. Since Hathaway sings in only a handful of scenes, all of which exist only to make her appear charming and spontaneous, the music justifiably takes center stage over the singer in the performance sequences. If only that applied to the majority of the movie. Barker-Froyland’s intention was clearly to make “Song One” all about music and how it can bring people together. But the result is all about Anne.
Criticwire Grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Hathaway’s involvement and the indie-music setting suggest this ought to have no problem finding a midsize distributor able to generate a fair amount of attention in limited release. The soundtrack alone should help elevate its profile.