Song One: Sundance Review

Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn in "Song One"
An unplugged chamber piece with welcome restraint but too little substance.

Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn play strangers who connect through unhappy circumstances in Kate Barker-Froyland’s music-driven drama about romantic love and family.

Writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland’s wispy debut, Song One, follows in the neo-folk organic-musical footsteps of John Carney’s films Once and Can a Song Save Your Life? Incorporating the live music scene of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as a backdrop, the delicate drama is sweet and sincere but a tad thin to resonate. It will likely appeal most to swoony young women -- especially those with fantasies of being romanced by Conor Oberst on acoustic guitar. But the main characters, played by Anne Hathaway and Johnny Flynn, lack the edge to really flesh out this playlist of familiar sentiments.

The movie’s theme tune could almost have been “Brother in a Coma” if the Smiths hadn’t gotten there first with their divinely glum ditty about a girlfriend on life support. Instead, the songs (all heard in naturalistic performance mode) are by indie duo Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice, and while pleasant and occasionally poetic, they tend to have a melancholy sameness about them that makes for non-dynamic accompaniment. A little more of the pluck and flavorful twang of Lewis’ solo material or her work with Rilo Kiley and the Watson Twins might have been welcome.

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Hathaway plays Franny, an anthropologist completing her Ph.D. with a study on nomadic tribes in Morocco. (With her flawlessly tousled pixie cut and red-carpet-ready makeup, however, she more convincingly passes for a L’Oreal spokesmodel.) When her brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield), a talented aspiring musician, is hit by a car and seriously injured, Franny is summoned home from Rabat by their mother, Karen (Mary Steenburgen).

Things get off to a rough start, as Henry lies in hospital with severe head injuries and no certainty from medics that he’ll regain consciousness. Karen is defensive about being too caught up in a book she's working on to have much involvement in Henry’s life. Franny is remorseful about a fight with her brother six months earlier, when she slammed Henry for dropping out of college to pursue a music career. They haven’t spoken since.

Hathaway isn’t required to do much beyond look misty-eyed and pensive or show annoyance toward her mother. But there are touching moments as Franny tries symbolically to mend the rift with Henry by making him her new anthropology project. She listens to his songwriting efforts, which she had previously ignored, and reads his journal. She checks out the coffee shops and music venues that are his chosen habitat, and even brings daily deliveries of his favorite diner pancakes in the hope that the smell will rouse him from deep sleep.

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The key development, however, happens when Franny uses a concert ticket tucked inside Henry’s journal to see his singer-songwriter idol James Forester (Flynn) perform. She hangs around after the show to meet the folkie troubabour, sharing the details of Henry’s accident and giving him a demo of one of her brother’s songs. Guess who turns up next day at the hospital with a guitar in his hand?

Barker-Froyland’s undernourished screenplay may be predictable, but it's never crassly manipulative, so we don’t witness the power of music instantly resuscitating comatose Henry. But James does become a frequent presence, helping Franny deal with her anxiety and guilt about her brother. The first flickers of their gentle romance also have a soothing effect on the shy, insecure singer. A star since his smash first album, his creative tank has been empty since his longtime girlfriend moved on.

One of the producers here is Jonathan Demme, and in addition to his Hathaway connection from the terrific Rachel Getting Married, it’s nice to see Steenburgen, who won herself an Oscar in Demme’s early film Melvin and Howard. The actress sets Karen up as somewhat self-absorbed and flaky, but she softens her in sync with the emergence of a kinder, gentler Franny.

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The film’s most captivating performance is from English actor-musician Flynn, who finds genuine soulfulness in a sensitive-artist cliché. (He lives in a cabin in Maine, for god’s sake.) The mellow chemistry between Hathaway and Flynn fits the mood of the film, even if their characters’ tentative relationship could use more tangible conflict. A touch more humor wouldn’t have hurt, either.

Barker-Froyland is the daughter of Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, and she has no doubt spent much of her life interacting with great international filmmakers. While she might next time consider sharing screenwriting responsibilities, she shows the beginnings of a pleasing grasp of visual storytelling. John Guleserian’s camera captures the cool Brooklyn hangouts and the glittering lights of New York across the river with crispness and warmth.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, Ben Rosenfield

Production companies: Worldview Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions

Director-screenwriter: Kate Barker-Froyland

Producers: Jonathan Demme, Marc Platt, Anne Hathaway, Adam Shulman, Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners

Executive producers: Maria Cestone, Sarah E. Johnson, Bill Johnson, Jim Seibel, Jared LeBoff

Director of photography: John Guleserian

Production designer: Jade Healy

Music: Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice

Costume designer: Emma Potter

Editor: Madeleine Gavin

Sales: CAA/Lotus Entertainment

No rating, 86 minutes.