Starring Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Pat Carroll, and Jane Adams. Directed by Maggie Greenwald.
Rated 3.0 Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher is a charming period piece with a lively subject—an early-20th-century musicologist (Janet McTeer) venturing into backwoods North Carolina in search of traditional songs still being performed. Dr. Lilly Penliric (McTeer) is also the 1907 model of the modern independent woman, and so she finds herself in the midst of enough feminist issues to fill an entire seminar as well.

At times, the results look a little too like something ready-made for Lifetime Channel fodder, but an appealing cast (including Aidan Quinn, Jane Adams, several musicians of note, and the handsomely rangy McTeer) keep things earthy, sweet natured and wary of mere ideology. And the assorted musical moments, the film’s real strength, are good enough to keep it all sailing despite the laundry list of gender issues and the melodramatic shorthand that goes with it.

Iris Dement, Emmy Rossum and Taj Mahal are among those who are on hand as both actors and musical performers, and several of the professional actors, especially Quinn and the doughty Pat Carroll, make touching musical contributions of their own. A sequence in which “Conversation with Death” is passed verse by verse from one character to the next is particularly effective, even though it is stylized in a way that makes one wonder whether a more thorough application of its hint of magical realism might have transfigured some of the film’s more pedestrian aspects.

The plot has two lesbian schoolteachers, a depressed hillbilly (Quinn) with a gift for stringed instruments, a gruffly jovial old matriarch (Carroll), an orphan who sings like an angel (Rossum), a deadbeat dad who migrates back and forth between his girlfriend and the wife whom he visits mostly for the purpose of getting her pregnant yet again. Misery and betrayals notwithstanding, Greenwald nudges most of these plot strands in a feel-good direction.

Quinn and Adams do the sharpest acting in the film. McTeer effortlessly conveys Penliric’s boldness and intelligence, but elsewhere she is just one of several actors who turn to simplistic tricks and blunt-edged emotion in moments that need to be more subtly rendered. Impatient superficiality prevails in the climactic scene, complete with deus ex shotgun.