In her first major role since winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Les Misérables, Anne Hathaway gets back in touch with her indie side for Song One, a modest but affecting drama that finds her delivering a gentle performance that contains none of the melodramatic fireworks of Fantine. Writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland’s feature debut about a woman reconnecting with her brother through his songwriting idol has a delicate, melancholy tone that’s fragile but strong enough to sustain this minor-key tale.
Hathaway plays Franny, a PhD student in anthropology studying Bedouin tribes when she gets a call from her mother (Mary Steenburgen) back home in New York with news: Franny’s younger brother, Henry (Ben Rosenfield), is in a coma after getting hit by a car. Franny returns to New York, feeling guilty that they hadn’t talked for months after she got mad at him for dropping out of college to pursue a music career.
Since Henry can’t speak, Franny decides to reenter his life in another way: through the journal he was writing. Alongside lyric ideas and general music musings, the journal reveals Henry’s admiration for a singer-songwriter named James Forester (Johnny Flynn), who had a hit indie album about five years ago but has struggled creatively ever since. (Franny even finds a photo of Henry backstage with his hero.) Seeing that James is playing in New York, she introduces herself to him and explains her brother’s condition and his adoration for him. Sympathetic, James (who doesn’t remember meeting Henry) shows up at the hospital to see the young man, and he and Franny strike up a friendship.
From the first moment that Franny and James meet, it’s easy to presume that the two of them will strike up a romantic relationship. But one of the strengths of Barker-Froyland’s film is that she doesn’t force that pairing. Instead, Song One is more about Franny’s silent reconciliation with her brother—in a sense, her growing feelings for James are partly a response to her wanting to repair the damage she did to her relationship with Henry.
Though the symbolism is a little too cute for its own good, the fact that Franny is an anthropologist is no accident. As she visits different New York dives and hot spots mentioned in Henry’s journal, Franny is on a fact-finding mission, trying to learn about the brother she dismissed after he disappointed her. Song One seems to suggest that Franny isn’t a bad person so much as she is a cut-off one. It’s easier for her to study other cultures than reflect on her life and the lives of those close to her.
This character dynamic isn’t easy to externalize, but Hathaway is more than capable, utilizing the easy emotional accessibility she always possesses to make Franny a likable but opaque person. And happily, the movie doesn’t ask Franny to have any grand personal revelations—Song One recognizes that people don’t change so quickly, and that what we’ll see in this film is merely the first step in hopefully a shift within her.
Hathaway’s isn’t the only nicely understated turn in the film. Steenburgen is particularly great as an outspoken but not over-the-top mother who has lived a rich life and must now be content with her long-ago memories. And Flynn, who’s an actor and musician, imbues James with the soulfulness of an artist, performing the character’s songs (written by indie songwriters Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice) with a simplicity that doesn’t try to oversell James’s talent. What could have been a mopey, self-obsessed portrait of a flash in the pan is instead a genuine portrayal of a floundering musician who fears that his peak is already behind him, no matter how many teen girls still think he’s a dreamy poet.
With the possibility of a love story always hovering in the distance, Song One can be a bit coy, its introspective observations about young people at their own personal crossroads consistently risking preciousness. But as she has done so well in the past, Hathaway makes sweetness a compelling attribute. There’s something about her face that suggests a woman feeling and thinking things without necessarily expressing them. Franny’s an enigma when Song One begins, and I can’t say that she comes into sharp focus even by the conclusion. For a first-timer, Barker-Froyland is confident enough to let that mystery linger.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Kate Barker-Froyland
Writer: Kate Barker-Froyland
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Johnny Flynn, Mary Steenburgen, Ben Rosenfield
Release Date: Screening in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival