Can a Song Save Your Life?, as a question, is dimwitted hipster drivel to which the only sane answer is "no, fuck off". Whereas Can a Song Save Your Life?, as as movie title, is at any rate way the hell better than the viciously routine Begin Again, as it was renamed following its 2013 festival run.

Certainly, Begin Again deserves a better title (and, now that I'm staring at it, a better poster) than one that suggests it's the most generic conceivable redemption story. I mean, it is a redemption story, but one whose particulars are sufficiently prickly, and sufficiently idiosyncratic, that "generic" is one of the last words it deserves to be smacked with. Far and away, the film's biggest flaw is that it resembles writer-director John Carney's earlier Once in almost every important way: it's a story about two people bonding over their interest in making music outside the mainstream of the music industry, it has been shot in a scruffy, handheld docu-realism style (boy, talk about an aesthetic that felt fresher seven years ago than it does now), it's conspicuously not a love story no matter how the structure feels like it's saying otherwise, and the best scene is, by a landslide, a moment about the spontaneous, insight-driven creation of a fleshed-out orchestration of a tender indie-folk song. Real actors play the protagonists of Begin Again, and they have given names, and that's probably the most pronounced difference.

Then again, Once was terrific, and Ozu made the same film, like, ten times in the '40s and '50s. So if Carney wants to revisit themes with a bit more maturity under his belt, why not? The results are charming as hell and not without a solid knowledge of how people think, interact with technology, form personal connections, and express feelings. It doesn't quite get up to Once level, in part because it is not as novel, in part because its setting isn't so original (struggling musicians in New York are one of the most over-described subgroups in modern independent filmmaking), and in part because for all the oohing and aahing the characters do over the album they're putting together, as far as my tastes go, there's nothing in the film that can hold a candle to Once's beguiling "Falling Slowly". But that's a taste issue.

In the new film, we have a young lady from England named Gretta (Keira Knightley), introduced playing a half-formed song to an indifferent audience in a New York bar; and we have Dan (Mark Ruffalo), introduced listening to her with a goofy, pleased smile that seems wildly out of proportion to her nonexistent enthusiasm for performing it or the sloppy noisiness of the venue. And then we flash back to find out that Dan has had a really shitty day, having been fired from his job at an indie record label he co-founded, and being generally despised by his teen daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) and impatiently tolerated by his estranged wife Miriam (Catherine Keener). In what is either a happy accident or a particularly cunning example of form following function, Begin Again is kind of the most boring version of itself for the entirety of this unduly long day-in-review, and then suddenly blossoms into legitimately interesting cinema at exactly the moment that Dan's awful day suddenly becomes very, very promising. In that aforementioned "best scene by a landslide", we see Gretta's film-opening musical performance from Dan's perspective, and instead of the brusque, acutely embarrassing sound mix of the first go-round, with Knightley's voice flattening out and the mumbles and clinks of the background brought up loud enough that it's hard to miss it, the version Dan hears is a fully orchestrated, rich pop song, with one instrument after the next making itself felt in his auditory imagination.

Storytelling can happen in a lot of ways, but storytelling - like literal, actual "the entire focus of this scene and all the meaning derived from it" storytelling - through sound design is rare enough that Begin Again as a whole suddenly explodes from being just a drowsy routine indie New Yorkisms spiced up by Ruffalo, Steinfeld, and Keener (who gets an exquisite moment early in the film, physically responding to Ruffalo with a clear sense of "I remember we used to have sex and I used to like it, and now I'm mad at myself" movement while he's in another room). And even if it never reaches quite that level again, it becomes far more engaging, not least because it also shifts, at this moment, from a docu-realism story of broken people to a process story about broken people forgetting about how broken they are thanks to the thrill of the chase (not coincidentally, the only time the film lags again is during another lengthy flashback, detailing Gretta's recent breakup from her boyfriend, played by Adam Levine, in America to become a rock star on the back of a song in a hit movie soundtrack). Ruffalo and Knightley are both terrific in the dance that ensues as Dan tries to convince Gretta to record a song, or a demo, or a whole damn album done up in the kind of oddball concept that will make their shared crushing poverty a strength and not a liability. The neuroticism and passion that comes with being a creative type feel entirely earned and natural, especially on Knightley's side of things (I don't know if I'd come out swinging with a "best performance of her career", but it's almost certainly the most comfortable). Begin Again, in its best moments - which are not infrequent - is appealing mostly on the backs of watching interesting, capable people going on with their business in an engaged, focused manner, and dealing with their personal problems not because they have a big heaving Movie Moment of catharsis, but because doing their work allows them enough distance and clarity to gain a new perspective on their lives.

It's all a bit predictable, I suppose, but the important thing is that it works, and that Dan and Gretta (and all the well-etched side characters) are fascinating enough as both people and professionals that it's a real delight to spend an hour and a half watching them. None of the songs blew my head open, and the "extended" ending underneath the credits sucks some of the impact out of the "real" ending, both of which are the exact opposites of Once's two biggest strengths; but no matter how much Begin Again follows obediently in its big sibling's footsteps, it's always entirely satisfying as a thing unto itself.