I dug into a review copy dying to see McKay, playing essentially herself as a "downtown" lounge pop hipster who deserves much better than her cultish following.
The Poconos-raised, New York-connected McKay was the Next Big Apple Thing for a year or three (circa 2004-06) with her "Get Away From Me" album of piano pop on Columbia, presented as a spunky counterpoint to Norah Jones' plush stuff.
But the artist also challenged the label hierarchy with demands and was eventually judged "too hip for the room," we surmise.
The real surprise and special delight of "Downtown Express" turns out to be co-star Philippe Quint. The popular violin soloist on the classical concert circuit plays a younger less-successful version of himself. As Sasha, he's part of a family of Russian Jewish refugees (as was Quint) who scrape by playing classical pieces on New York subway platforms.
Sasha also studies at Juilliard and rehearses for a recital that could make him a star and assure his permanent residency in the U.S. Until, that is, he becomes distracted, encountering the mysteriously detached Ramona (McKay) and her group, Downtown Express. Digging their music, he decides he wants to plug in his fiddle and maybe more.
Will music, and love, conquer all?
Completed in 2010, "Downtown Express" is still on the festival circuit, looking for mainstream distribution. The film is beautifully shot - New York looks much better than Dublin did in "Once" - and rich with auditory delights. The classics Quint performs with his coach (Carolyn McCormick of "Law and Order" fame), dad (Michael Cumpsty) and cousin (Ashley Springer) are breathtaking. Quint does his own "stunt" work. There are also a couple of breezy, downtown train riding tunes that McKay and group chug away on, with lesser impact.
More intriguing are the classical/pop fusion pieces Sasha, Ramona and her band dream up - in reality with help from Philadelphia-born film composer Michael Bacon (half of the Bacon Brothers with actor Kevin).
What's missing is a haunting romantic killer of a number like the Academy Award-winning "Falling Slowly" from "Once" - and, frankly, any romantic chemistry between Ramona and Sasha.
Somewhere along the line, it must have been decided this film should be more about the handsome, likable and surprisingly versatile Quint and only barely about "the girl." Whatever clever quips or emotional admissions Mckay's character may have uttered have been left on the cutting room floor, along with any of the cute, quirky songs she could have performed.
McKay's ode to narcissism, "Clonie," would have set up her persona well. As a consequence, the most "growth" we see in Ramona (and McKay) is through lighting and makeup that evolve her from distant wallflower to a warmer and prettier object of affection.
Bottom line: "Downtown Express" still charms, but it should have made more stops en route.
Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad St., 7:30 p.m. Saturday, closing party to follow at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. Film and party $45, ages 35 and under $30, film-only $12, 215-545-4400, pjff.org.