‘Song One’: Simple, but touching tale

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Anne Hathaway’s last theatrical release was the Nolan Brother’s “Interstellar,” a film with a megabudget estimated at $165 million, an abstruse time travel premise, a setting on the other side of a cosmic  wormhole, mind-boggling special effects, and an extended three-hour span. The film played on well over 3,500 screens internationally and garnered five Oscar nominations.

Here’s Hathaway in “Song One,” a decidedly small budget film with an adumbrated storyline, a mundane setting strictly on planet earth, an abbreviated running time under 90 minutes, and limited theatrical distribution. It’s quite a dramatic segue.

Hathaway had met “Song One” writer/director, Kate Barker-Froyland, when the two worked together on the 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada.” In it, Hathaway starred opposite Meryl Streep. Barker-Froyland had been an assistant to the director. The two apparently struck up a personal relationship.

What is even more surprising is that the unheralded “Song One” boasts not one, but two Academy Award winners in its cast. In addition to Hathaway, an Oscar recipient for “Les Miserables,” the film has Mary Steenburgen, who won hers for Jonathan Demme’s 1980 comedy “Melvin and Howard.”

Franny (Hathaway) is a 28-year old anthropology doctoral candidate. She is in Morocco, researching nomadic tribes.

Franny has been estranged from her younger brother, Henry (Ben Rosenfield) and superannuated hippie mom (Steenburgen). Franny had an argument with Henry over his decision to drop out of school to become a busking folk musician. She hasn’t spoken with him for six months. Henry persists in reaching out to Franny, sending her links to self-accompanied performances of his compositions. Franny hasn’t opened a single one.  During her stay in Morocco, she has been similarly incommunicado with her mother.

One day, Franny received a long-distance call from her mother. She is advised that Henry has been hit by an automobile and is currently in a coma. Although Franny has been detached from her family for half a year, it doesn’t deter her from dropping everything and immediately flying back to New York City.

When Franny arrives stateside, she discovers that Henry has sustained a subdural hematoma. A doctor advises her that it is uncertain whether Henry will ever emerge from his coma.

What can Franny do to help extract Henry from the coma that has engulfed him? She peruses Henry’s journal and learns that his favorite performer is English folk singer, James Forester (folk rocker, Johnny Flynn). Franny attends a concert by James. Afterwards, she chats him up, explaining her brother’s plight and the fact that James is his idol.

Franny is taken aback when James shows up at the hospital and stages an impromptu mini-concert for Henry’s benefit. What a kindhearted gesture!

Franny is a quintessential magic pixie dream girl. To make this ineluctably clear, she is even sporting a pixie haircut and has luscious, outsized lips. James is the male analogue of a magic pixie dream girl. He evidences no macho swagger, making him perfect androgynous fantasy fodder.

Is there any question where the relationship between Franny and James is headed?

The film does an excellent job of capturing the economic realities of being a folk singer. His female fans may swoon over James and he has a certain celebrity within the folk music microcosm. However, it has been five years since James’ last album and he is struggling to support himself. Although it causes him embarrassment, James has even been reduced to reluctantly accepting wedding gigs.

In addition to intermittent acoustic performances by Johnny Flynn, the film is enriched by the musical renditions of the Felice Brothers, Naomi Shelton, Sharon Van Etten, Dan Deacon, and Paul Whitty. This helps infuse a sense of hard-earned verisimilitude into the film.

Since both films involve folk music as subject matter, “Song One” can’t escape comparison to the 2013 film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” With the accomplished Coen Brothers as screenwriters/directors, the latter benefitted from their considerable experience. By contrast, “Song One” is a first time feature by fledgling auteur, Kate Barker-Froyland. The Coen Brothers’ film involved the Greenwich Village folk scene of the ‘60s as opposed to the setting of contemporary Brooklyn in “Song One.” Whereas an unmistakably sardonic attitude pervaded “Inside Llewyn Davis,” this film is singularly devoid of the slightest scintilla of cynicism. “Inside Llewyn Davis” included a bravura breakthrough lead performance by Oscar Isaac; a memorable, larger than life supporting character, portrayed by John Goodman; and some other vivid smaller roles. All of the performances in “Song One” are subdued and self-contained. The other distinguishing feature is the presence of a love story in this film. The protagonist of “Inside Llewyn Davis” was far too self-absorbed and narcissistic to contemplate a romantic relationship with another person.

In her feature debut, Kate Barker-Froyland shows promise and considerable earnestness. As a consequence, “Song One” is a simple, but touching little film.

*** PG-13 (for a scene of sexuality, and brief language) 86 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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