Ah summertime, barbecues, sunburns and big budget films designed to take you to galaxies far, far away or other equally unlikely locations. When the focus is on special effects, sometimes there just isnt time to worry about a script. Fortunately, for those of us who enjoy popcorn flicks but also long for something more substantial, there are gems like SONGCATCHER. A little film, with a seemingly small story that comes out of nowhere and captivates using a budget less than one days catering bill for, say, PEARL HARBOR.
Inspired by actual events, tts the tale of a female college professor, Lily Penleric played by Janet McTeer who, in the early 20th century, stymied in love and in career by the prevailing patriarchy takes herself off to Appalachia to collect the folks songs there. Her timing could not be better. Her sister and a colleague have established a school, giving her an entrée into the closed, suspicious mountain society. Further, a coal mining concern is about to turn their agricultural way of life into one of slave wages and black lung disease, driving many off the mountain. We, like McTeer, gradually learn the workings of an insular group whose culture, like their music and their language, has not changed much since their ancestors arrived from Britain in the 18th century. We, like McTeer, gradually learn the workings of an insular group whose culture, like their music and their language, has not changed much since their ancestors arrived from Britain in the 18th century, and a way of life that while hard, has a joy and a virtue to it that city life cant compete with. Plus, there is the unlikely, but not improbable, romance with a mountain man in the person of Aiden Quinn, a casting move that makes the romance just that much more believable.
Writer/director Maggie Greenwald makes the most of the premise of an outsider discovering the culture of the mountain folk along with their music. She invests them with dignity and grace while not making the mistake of idealizing their hardscrabble poverty. These are people who dont set the same store by what we would call hygiene, nor do they seem to set much store by what you and I would call learning, yet it takes surprisingly little time for our pre-conceived notions to fall away. Greenwalds script and direction as well as the performances by Pat Carroll as a wise mountain woman, Quinn as her grandson whos been to the city and left it unimpressed, Emmy Rossum as a teenager taken under the wings of the teachers make clear that happiness depends little on such things and that city folk who have as much or more to learn from them as the other way around. Certainly McTeers character, played with smarts, who has lived too long in her head while denying her heart comes round and thats before Quinn catches her eye. And of course everywhere the glorious music. Even if you are not a fan of this style of music, the presentation here evokes its deep emotions and a beauty that comes from life experience, not the pre-packaged pap courtesy of slick marketing types. After Carrolls character Viney Butler, the local healer, helps a woman through a particularly nasty childbirth, she spontaneously breaks into a song entitled I wish I was a single girl again. Now that sounds hokey and Im well aware of that. Yet under Greenwalds direction and an earthy performance by Carroll, breaking into a rousing chorus of a song that longs wistfully for the carefree life of a single girl is, to use the professors phrase, as natural for this character as breathing the air around her.
Now Im going to get on my soapbox. Last summer the strongest female character we saw on movie screens was a chicken. And even considering the medium, claymation, Ginger in CHICKEN RUN was less a cartoon character than, say, any of the Charlies Angels. This summer, the strongest female character so far is Carrolls character of Viney Butler with McTeers Lily Peleric a close second. And dont talk to me about Laura Croft. Im talking about characters that dont exist in video games or the more fanciful recesses of the male libido.
SONGCATCHER like one of the ballads it showcases, with similarly sharply drawn characters and those almost mythic throat-catching moments of poignancy, courage and joy. And thats a special effect worth experiencing.