The Soundtrack Starts and the Scene Begins, by Scott Nye
I like Anne Hathaway an awful lot, and Song One hopes you do, too. If only hope were enough. Not even Tom Hooper’s win-an-Oscar-in-one-take aesthetic allowed so much focus solely on her face – her curiosity, fear, and passions plainly, beautifully exhibited in close-up after close-up after close-up. There’s a lot of Hathaway face in this film, but she really engages with it, giving as lived-in and fully-realized performance as they come, totally at ease in front of the camera, yet capable of exploding when a situation creates a rise in her. The act of simply turning to the side in one scene was one of the most startling moments I’d seen onscreen in the past year. Like the finest actors, Hathaway understands how her performance fits into the larger scheme of the picture, modulating her relative placidity to highlight her more excitable turns. Unfortunately, director Kate Barker-Froyland either relies on her too much or not enough. What is set up as melodrama gives way to the mumbliest of mumblecore romances, and Hathaway’s charm is not enough to distract from her character’s unquestioned, unmotivated, and mishandled priorities.
Hathaway plays Franny, a Ph.D student on a research trip in Morocco when her mother (Mary Steenburgen) calls with news that her brother was hit by a car and now lies in a coma. She returns home to New York to be with them, devastated by what happened and distraught over their last interaction being so combative. While she waits for any change in his condition, she tries to get a sense for what his life had been like since they last spoke. He was a musician, playing on street corners and desperate to get his record into the hands of someone who could help. One such someone is James Forrester (Johnny Flynn), a handsome one-man band whom Franny’s brother idolized. She attends a show to which he had a ticket, meets up with James, and, well, sparks fly and all the rest.
Flynn is an appealing sort of guy who may engage viewers the same way Hathaway does for me. His own calm before the camera and his fellow performers, however, is undercut by playing such an awkward and uncertain character, caught between the sudden success of his first album and the demands he cannot fulfill as he looks towards his second. Yet what really holds back any scene between he and Hathaway from taking off is the completely undynamic nature of either character. They basically get along, without anything about the other really being cause for annoyance, frustration, or grave objection. But the manner in which they get along goes beyond tossed-off. I enjoy my share of mumblecore, but this was awfully grating stuff, and is so centralized in the context of the film that Franny begins to completely neglect (and will later literally abandon) her ailing brother in an effort to pursue only the fringes of this romance. The climax of both storylines is so quietly insane that I wonder if the Barker-Froyland had any sense of, let alone a perspective on, what her protagonist was doing.
All of which, for the excellent work Hathaway and Steenburgen (who is quite good, and plays easily the film’s most compelling character) do, makes for a rather frustrating, middling experience. Barker-Froyland has an excellent sense of how to use people in rest to convey character, but little sense of doing anything else with them in that process. She clearly feels she must, or she wouldn’t introduce such a contrived format for her film (this is her feature debut). But by not indulging her story to its fullest, she leaves too much on the table, and beautiful though her subjects are, their faces alone cannot make up for it.