Brit stage thesp Janet McTeer’s likely Oscar nom for “Tumbleweeds” could give a leg up to “Songcatcher,” another polished, feel-good indie production in which she gets her second screen lead. Framing its offbeat but nonthreatening theme — folk musicianship in turn-of-the-century U.S. hinterlands — in rather formulaic melodrama, pic’s old-fashioned qualities might make it a sleeper among older auds not usually found at the arthouse. More cynical critics and viewers are likely to find this home brew a mite too corn-based for their taste.
Playing Yank again, McTeer is cast as Dr. Lily Penleric, a prim musicologist who’s furious when informed that she’s been denied tenure once again — by an all-male review board — at her East Coast university. Even the married fellow staff member she’s having an affair with was too cowardly to plead her cause. She departs in a huff, having nowhere to go but the remote mountain school founded by her sister Elna (Jane Adams) and fellow teacher Harriet (E. Katherine Kerr). This rustic setting ruffles the “refined,” rather stuffy doc; nor do the locals initially cotton to her high-minded ways.
But her academic interest — and ambition — is soon thrillingly piqued by the discovery that these “backward” mountain folk live lives as suffused with music “as the air you breathe.” What’s more, the “old love songs” they’ve passed down from generation to generation turn out to be scarcely altered spins on traditional English and Scottish folk ballads. This news is right up her scholastic alley and could bring Lily the ivory tower prestige a woman in 1907 is seldom allowed.
Once cumbersome tools arrive from her erstwhile college (including a primitive recording device), protag sets to cataloging these songs. She traipses all over the hills with help from the school’s orphaned ward, Deladis (Emmy Rossum), and latter’s ornery beau, Fate (Gregory Cook).
Unaccustomed to outsiders, some locals are baffled, amused or offended by such “scientific methods.” Interrupting his grandma Viney’s (Pat Carroll) warbling session, widower Tom (Aidan Quinn) takes umbrage at Lily’s stern self-interest — he figures if they’ve got something city people want, they ought to be paid for it.
Indeed, the hill folk are used to getting rooked by emissaries from “civilization.” One of their own, Earl (David Patrick Kelley), is now the detested lackey for vast coal interests — which pressure the dirt-poor residents to sell their ore-rich land for measly sums. Lily finds herself caught in a losing battle. The hardscrabble culture she grows to admire will clearly be vanquished by “progress” one day, yet her efforts to preserve it are met with suspicion.
“Songcatcher” unfolds at a leisurely but enjoyable pace, its dramatic contrivances never pushed too hard by director Maggie Greenwald (“The Kill-Off,” “The Ballad of Little Joe”). But helmer’s prior subjects had more bite than her self-penned screenplay manages this time around. Central figure Lily undergoes a by-the-numbers evolution from prissy observer to understanding participant in this uncouth community. She gets a familiar, panicky scene helping an abandoned young wife in childbirth; she inevitably gets some romantic heat going with scruffy-but-nice Tom; she even comes to respect her sibling’s Sapphic bond with Harriet. There’s also a hokey, underdeveloped subplot about a ghostly “wild woman” who runs around the woods. Few rural-drama cliches are left unturned, not least the barn dance at which our heroine gets woozy on moonshine and a merry brawl breaks out.
McTeer anchors pic confidently, though she might have mined more humor from Lily’s stiff-necked behavior early on. Quinn provides his usual warm, masculine foil. Among a capable supporting cast mostly tethered to one-note roles, Adams and Carroll fare best. Contempo folk singer-songwriter Iris DeMent’s high-lonesome voice is pleasingly tapped in an OK dramatic turn; likewise seasoned 13-year-old pro singer and debuting feature thesp Rossum. Blues legend Taj Mahal makes a cameo appearance.
Modest but slick feature handles its simple period details convincingly; the pleasant musical segs are well recorded, and Enrique Chediak’s pretty lensing of the woodsy locations is a major plus.