Sundance Day 8: Anne Hathaway Charms in ‘Song One,’ Rich Hill Probes Small-Town Missouri

Anne Hathaway at the premiere of Song One

Sundance Institute is dispatching its writers to daily screenings and events to capture the 10 days of festivities during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Check back each morning for roundups from the previous day’s events.

Song One

For her follow-up to her Oscar win for Les Miserables, Anne Hathaway returns to the screen in another musical film—though this romantic drama is decidedly less bombastic. Director Kate Barker-Froyland’s low-key first feature Song One is as delicate as musicals come.

In her most unassuming performance to date, Hathaway headlines as Franny, an anthropologist who is estranged from her family and living in Morocco. When her subway troubadour brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is hospitalized following an accident, Franny returns home to try to reconnect with her now-comatose sibling. Delving into her brother’s enthusiasm for the local Brooklyn music scene, Franny becomes involved with Henry’s idol James, a soulful musician played by charismatic British actor-singer Johnny Flynn.

Following the screening at the Library Theatre on Thursday, Barker-Froyland explained how she found Flynn. “I had seen a French film called Goodbye First Love at the New York Film Festival in 2011 and at the end of the film there’s a gorgeous song called “The Water” and I was moved by it,” she remembered. “Then later we were casting James and had been looking for a while and I happened to see a trailer for that same film and heard that same song and had to find out who the singer was. I Googled Johnny and found out he was also a classically trained Shakespearean actor.” And he was soon cast in the pivotal role.

Director of Photography John Guleserian, who dazzled Sundance three years ago with his camera work in Like Crazy, again shot with a handheld camera and often used natural lighting to add to a wistful realism to the romance. And it almost doesn’t bear stating that a gentle musical like Song One is largely dependent on the appeal to its music and the folk-pop songs heard here are without a doubt the film’s highlight.

The director said she enlisted widely-admired singer-songwriters Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice to compose the heartfelt tunes sung by Rosenfield and Flynn in the film, after she was introduced to the pair by Hathaway and her husband Adam Schulman, who co-produced the film along with Jonathan Demme and others. “I had written the script and in the script it would say ‘James plays a song. It is beautiful,” the director revealed to much laughter from the crowd. “So I met with Jenny and Johnny and we talked about James’ back story and where he came from and a lot about his character. The next morning in my in-box there was a song and I listened to it and knew at that moment they were the perfect people to write the music for this.”

Rich Hill

By Eric Hynes

In the disarmingly candid, deeply empathetic Rich Hill, co-directing cousins Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo returned to their parents’ small hometown of Rich Hill, Missouri, to see how the place has changed over the course of their lives. Over the course of 20 months, they followed Andrew, Appachey, and Harley—three boys from “the wrong side of the tracks”—as they struggled with school, poverty, loneliness and unstable family lives. Told from a boys’ eye view, the film feels disarmingly intimate, as if the filmmakers were permitted not just into their subjects’ homes, but into their headspaces.

While largely focused on the three boys, the film also turns into a three-part portrait of families struggling to make ends meet. “We met these three kids and went home with them, and their families really opened their hearts and lives to us,” Tragos said during the post-screening Q&A, “and with that openness and trust we really felt that we needed to tell their story.” When asked if it was difficult to remain empathetic towards the adults they encountered—men and women who’ve been in and out of jail, in and out of jobs, in and out of the hospital, and uneven forces in the boys’ lives—the directors said no. “It’s hard enough to be a parent with resources, and a partner in a two-parent home,” Tragos said. “These moms became pregnant when they were teenagers, and children themselves, and hearing their stories endeared me to them. I identified with their frustrations and challenges.” To which Palermo added: “All of these adults were once kids that were lovable in ways that these kids are.”

When asked how they were able to achieve and maintain such intimate access with their subjects, the filmmakers expressed that it wasn’t as hard as it might seem. “They were just excited to share their stories, and really touched that there was someone who cared,” Palermo said. “We had a connection—we became friends with these kids,” Tragos added. “As much as we [may have] wanted to make ourselves disappear.” Specifically with Harvey, an outgoing boy whose thoughts and emotions are always bubbling to the surface, it proved impossible to always hide the fact that filmmakers were in the room. But that only enhances the sense that you’re seeing the real Harley. “Harley just owns a room. He was killing it out here, high fiving people,” Palermo said, referring to Harley’s visit to Park City earlier in the week. “And you don’t want to suppress that, because that’s him, he’s just so gregarious. You don’t want to change him.”

Tragos said that many people who’ve seen the film at the Festival have asked how they can help the boys with their financial, medical and psychological situations, to which she suggested looking beyond the scope of Rich Hill, to Rich Hill and beyond. “These families in a large part are in a good place right now, they’ve got this film and we’re going to continue our relationships with them,” she said. “But there are a lot of families like them that aren’t having their stories told. So think about them too.”

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