Following an Oscar win for a performance that consisted largely of singing a single famous sad ballad (in a single now-famous long take), it comes as no surprise that Anne Hathaway's first project post-Les Miserables is musical in theme. What is surprising is that she hardly sings in it at all.
In Song One, the feature film debut of writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland, Hathaway plays Franny, a budding anthropologist who reunites with her estranged family when her brother Henry, an aspiring musician, has an accident that leaves him comatose. Upon returning to New York, she uses her brother's notebook to immerse herself in the Brooklyn indie music scene he was trying to break into, and begins a romance with a musician (Johnny Flynn) that Henry admired.
The first time we see Franny, she is wearing the traditional costume of the tribe she is studying in Morocco, sitting in a dimly lit corner, recording a group of women performing a bridal ritual -- a part of things but removed from the action. Franny's career as an anthropologist contrives to identify her as a quick study in cultural assimilation, however, as she uses that same recording device to capture the sounds of the streets of New York -- in an effort to revive her brother by playing him the familiar city symphony of sorts. With Henry's journal as a primary source, her exploration of indie-folk Brooklyn reads as another anthropological study more than a period of personal growth; when the music is held at an arm's length by her scientific approach to it, it's hard to believe that it can have any profound impact on her.
The vulnerability that comes with musical performance, which Hathaway wore proudly as snot dripped from her nose in close-up in Les Miz, is embraced only by the flawed men of Song One. Hathaway sings only twice: first, flirtingly, Franny play-acts writing a song along with her new musician boyfriend; the second time, she sings her childhood favorite to appease her mother, caught up in teary-eyed reminiscence. These self-conscious little serenades are not the emotionally raw performances that make music movies powerful, and they serve only to remind us that Hathaway actually has a lovely voice that's being wasted here. Franny's anthropological assault on Brooklyn might have worked better had she plunged herself into the music by simply participating, and it's baffling that Barker-Froyland didn't take advantage of her star's most buzzed-about talent.
The only real baggage Franny has to work through is her estrangement from her family, the result of her having rather cruelly cut all ties with Henry over his decision to drop out of college to pursue a career in music. Experiencing the music about which Henry is so passionate ought to move her, by the end of the film, to admit the possibility that he might have made the right choice for himself, but she never acknowledges that, either. In fact, she doesn't seem to have changed at all. In the end, the sweet music of Song One is little more than melodic window-dressing.
God Help the Girl, another music-themed, female-driven film that premiered at Sundance this year, was written and directed by Belle and Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. Emily Browning stars as Eve, another young woman who is finding her way through music, this time in Glasgow. Eve is sharp where the irreproachable Franny is flat; she's a thorny bundle of insecurities, manipulation and musical daydreams that can be difficult to digest as a heroine, but is exponentially more interesting.
Critical reception for both Song One and God Help the Girl has been rather lukewarm, but I confess I was enormously charmed by the latter where the former left me cold. Where the too-small role that the music plays in Song One makes the weak plot and premise that much less compelling, the centrality of Eve's music in the admittedly flawed God Help the Girl -- an actual musical, in addition to being a film about music -- makes it easy to look past the film's plot holes and underdeveloped characters and indulge in its musical fantasy.
Eve has a much greater hurdle to overcome than Franny's stubbornness: living in a women's health institution in treatment for an eating disorder, her therapist suggests she write songs as part of her rehabilitation. Not only does Eve sing almost all of them, they are unequivocally from her perspective; the first words out of her mouth are sung straight into the camera as an introductory monologue. At one point, after bursting into song in the middle of a conversation with her new friend James, he asks her if that's something she does often. Seeming as surprised as he is, she replies that she's never done it before. The exchange gets a chuckle, but it also makes the point to the audience that her spontaneous musical moments have bled from her fantasy into the reality she shares with the people around her.
With that in mind, all of God Help the Girl -- from the unrehearsed musical numbers to Eve's too-perfect retro wardrobe to the adoring attention she receives at every turn -- represents a magical realization of her fondest daydreams. To some people, the film is entirely too twee, but others at least ought to be able to connect to it on a personal level based on the specificity of Eve's perspective, which makes it a more immersive experience for an audience than indie-folk Brooklyn ever appears to be for Franny.
Whatever problems Franny and Eve had at the beginning of their respective stories are never fully acknowledged, and so never fully resolved (through the power of music or otherwise) by the time the credits roll. Both of these girls still have some growing up to do -- Franny is overdue for some humiliation at a drunken karaoke night, and Eve's handle on reality is still shaky at best. Until that changes, God help them both.