2 stars (out of 4 stars)
Anne Hathaway has a lovely singing voice. Those passionate vocals, of course, helped her win an Oscar last year for Les Miserables. She shows off her chops again in her new film Song One (which premiered January 20 at the Sundance Film Festival), gently humming along to original and classic folk music.
Alas, that's the high note in a too-low-key indie drama that never finds its focus — and appeals solely to that special sect of musical, 20-something hipsters who reside in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn.
Hathaway is Frannie, a tightly wound anthropologist getting her Phd in Morocco. She's summoned home to New York because her younger brother, an aspiring singer, was hit by a car while crossing the street. He lies comatose; she feels guilty because the last time the two spoke, they got into their "first grown-up fight."
To cope, Frannie decides to immerse herself in his world. His room is plastered with photos of his musical hero, a popular British folk singer named James Forester (Johnny Flynn). One night after a show, Frannie approaches him and gingerly shares the news about her brother. He shows up to the hospital and rhapsodizes to his No. 1 fan.
He and Frannie soon go out socially and bond over . . . actually, it's not clear what the pair have in common outside the hospital walls other than a love of music and their respective hotness. Both characters are thinly drawn — this is critic-speak for hopelessly boring — which gives the audience little reason to root for them.
Not that anyone should. A grieving sister who breezily jumps into bed with a relative stranger just comes off as misguided, no matter how many times they gaze at the lights over the Brooklyn Bridge. Indeed, Frannie never once broaches the delicate subject. Oh, no. That sensible logic would just ruin the film’s dreamy mood.
But there's a difference between dreamy and sleep-inducing. Even at 86 minutes, the outing feels stretched out because of its wisp of a plot. Minimalistic is the theme here, from Hathaway's basic T-shirt and cut-offs wardrobe to the low-budget nighttime cinematography. (Hathaway's hair is still shorn too, prompting a disapproving line from her mom in one of the film’s few authentic pieces of dialogue.)
Considering the title, perhaps the most frustrating issue is the music. The sight of the gorgeous Flynn strumming his guitar can't mask the fact that the compositions are ordinary and unmemorable. Hathaway, also a producer, is clearly aiming for the quiet, aching lyricism of Once — but when the central relationship feels this lifeless, it might as well be on mute.