A-lister Anne Hathaway stars in Song One, a somber, fitful, folk-infused romance opening Friday at the Cedar Lee for an exclusive one-week engagement. Hathaway is Franny. She's out in Morocco studying nomadic tribes for her Ph.D. when she gets a call from her mom (Mary Steenburgen), saying that her brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) has been in a terrible accident. He's in a coma. Franny must come home.
Franny and Henry haven't spoken in six months — she disapproved of his decision to drop out of college to pursue music — and so, to expiate her guilt, she reads through Henry's journal and takes a guided tour of his favorite Brooklyn music venues to get closer to him.
She soon discovers Henry's favorite artist, James Forrester (Johnny Flynn, himself a poet and folk musician of British descent), a sort of grungier Justin Vernon. After an awkward post-show encounter, Franny and Forrester become romantically involved, and rest assured that the romance here is about as effusive and charming as the stapler I'm looking at right now. Put another way, the romance is about as credible as Hathaway's Brooklyn hipster cred, which is signified in the film by Moroccan jewelry and frayed white denim shorts.
Song One is the anti-Once in that respect. It's difficult to root for this romance. And the only thing at stake is Henry's life, which is entirely beyond either Franny or Forrester's control. When they're not palling around on rooftops at indeterminate hours, or recording the sounds of the city for Henry, Franny and Forrester mostly just sit in the hospital, Forrester becoming weirdly privy to assorted family tensions. Or else they're attending smoky basement folk shows. Forrester always lugs his guitar with him too, just to remind us that at any moment, he might be inspired to jam.
And he does, with great and casual frequency. The movie is absolutely ga ga for indie folk, and unflinching in its faith in the genre's restorative powers. Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis — I'm a fan — wrote the songs, and though one or two of them are quite good, they're not seamlessly integrated into the narrative as in, say, Inside Llewyn Davis or the aforementioned Once. Most of the music literally occurs in performance.
To his credit, Johnny Flynn's not bad as the folk icon with a softer side, but he's by no means equipped to carry any film as a romantic lead. Nor, in this instance, is Hathaway. The film is so eager to paint her in pastels — she gets a pass for her role in the family dysfunction and goes to extreme lengths to atone — that it's hard to take her seriously as sorrowful sister or musical muse.