‘Song One’: Anne Hathaway as a guilty sister moved by music

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By Mary Houlihan/For the Sun-Times

First-time filmmaker Kate Barker-Froyland’s “Song One” is a gentle, contemplative film about the power of music and how it connects and, sometimes, transforms people and their relationships. It’s reminiscent of “Once,” the indie favorite that went on to become a hit Broadway musical. “Song One,” however, lacks the soulful storyline and emotional synergy that connected the relationships in “Once.”

Anne Hathaway plays Franny, an anthropologist who for the past six months has been in Morocco studying the country’s nomadic tribes. When her mother (Mary Steenburgen) calls with alarming news — Franny’s musician brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) has been in an accident and is now in a coma — she heads back to Brooklyn and her estranged family.

Franny hasn’t spoken to Henry for months after arguing with him over his decision to quite school and pursue a career as a singer-songwriter. He has attempted to share his music with her via email, but she’s ignored him. Now, sitting next to her brother’s bed in the hospital, she regrets that decision and sets out on a mission to get to know him better.

With Henry’s journal as a guide, Franny visits the Brooklyn clubs and diners that he frequented. She records the sounds of the street, which she plays for Henry in hopes that he can hear them. Also in his journal, she finds a ticket to a concert by James Forester (Johnny Flynn), her brother’s songwriting idol. She goes to the show and gives James a copy of one of Henry’s songs. (It’s an awkward encounter nicely played by the actors.)

James made his name with his last album but has been experiencing writer’s block since his girlfriend left him. He shows up in Henry’s hospital room, plays a song for him and begins a romance with Franny. The couple connects for the moment over quiet conversations on rooftops and trips to local music halls.

Barker-Froyland’s thin screenplay is predictable and lacks emotional depth, but it’s not manipulative. She allows the story to unfold in easy ways using lingering shots and often letting the songs speak for the actors. But Franny is never held accountable for the way she treated Henry, and thus Hathaway, pretty much coasting through the role through no fault of her own, isn’t allowed to really get at the core of her character’s anger and despair. Some of the best scenes are between Franny and her outspoken mother (a perfect Steenburgen) as they spar, laugh and contemplate life.

“Song One” also nicely captures in capsule form Brooklyn’s vibrant music scene, including snippets of performances by Sharon Van Etten, the Felice Brothers and Dan Deacon among others. The songs, written by Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice of the indie-rock duo Jenny and Johnny, are heartfelt standouts as performed by Flynn, an accomplished British singer-songwriter in his own right who also is a classically trained actor with a handful of impressive London stage credits. His portrayal of James, as a quiet, insecure man uneasy with celebrity, rings true.

To her credit, Barker-Froyland (one looks forward to her next effort) doesn’t allow the relationship between Franny and James to overtake the story but instead keeps the focus on Franny’s reconciliation with her brother. There are no real surprises here, just lives played out quietly and succinctly under the seductive spell of music.

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