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Neon’s transcendent indie musical is the real deal.
Sometimes, a performance is so good it makes a story you’ve heard before feel like you’re hearing it for the first time.
DIRECTOR: Tom Harper
RELEASE: Theatrical distribution by Neon
A Glasgow singer-songwriter struggles to make it in a transcendent version of this story.
A rote synopsis of Wild Rose will feel all too familiar. Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) is released from prison and wastes no time getting back to her dreams of becoming a country singer. She pulls on cowboy boots over her newly mandated ankle monitor and struts out of a Scottish jail and back into the spotlight. The only problem is, she has responsibilities: Two children await her at home, and her beleaguered mother Marion (Julie Walter) is ready to remind her of the harsh realities of their working-class existence.
We know that Rose-Lynn is not going to walk away from her children. We also know that she’s not likely to give up on her dream: This is a feel-good indie movie you paid to see after all. It’s a safe bet she’s going to find some kind of balance and stop hitting the bottle so hard, and damn it, she is going to learn some lessons along the way.
Wild Rose belongs to a particular subgenre of films that Americans can’t seem to get enough of that includes Billy Elliot, Once, The Full Monty, and The Commitments. In these films, a plucky charmer from the U.K. transcends their gritty working-class background as they chase “impossible” artistic dreams.
The film even stretches Glasgow, Scotland’s reality a bit to fit the needs of this familiar structure. Wild Rose portrays the city as a musical backwater when in reality there is live music in every pub. You don’t have to look hard to hear Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson covers mixed in with rock, punk, soul, blues, jazz, and any other genre you could imagine wafting through the streets. Even if the music scene there isn’t quite Nashville, it is at least comparable to Austin, Texas. The city even has a UNESCO musical heritage designation.
But unlike these other “blue collar U.K. kid makes good” movies, Wild Rose stars a woman. This particular woman, Jessie Buckley, may turn out to be a generational talent as an actress and as a singer. She makes Wild Rose appointment viewing because it feels like you’re watching the arrival of a true movie star.
Her performance elevates Wild Rose for a number of reasons, but let’s start with the most obvious. She can really sing. And we’re talking more like Lady Gaga than Bradley Cooper. Like most of these films, Wild Rose is functionally a musical. Unlike these other films, Buckley handles the majority of the soundtrack herself.
Buckley, who rose to fame on a U.K. talent show and went on to the national touring company of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, channels titans of country music with covers of Patsy Cline, Emmylou Harris, and Wynona Judd. The soundtrack spans decades of country standards, with selections from the ‘50s to the present, and Buckley makes each of them her own with ease. If you’re a country fan, you’ll feel that she does these immortal standards justice; if you’re not, you might leave with a little more love for the genre.
The acting, of course, is what really matters in a film, and Buckley delivers. Though she is Irish, she captures Glasgow’s particular gritty swagger with equal parts reckless passion and cutting humor, becoming the human embodiment of the plucky Glaswegian spirit. A film like this is meant to have high highs and low lows, and she deftly manages the transition from euphoric joy to depressive agony with relentless grace.
Buckley’s casting also helps the film in terms of theme. Films like this can sometimes feel goofy or twee, but the three female leads, Buckley, Waters, and Sophie Okonedo, who plays a wealthy woman who thinks helping Rose-Lee defeat her demons is as simple as throwing money at her dreams, anchor the film in a surprisingly deep commentary on modern feminism.
This isn’t a “women can’t have it all” story, but rather a nuanced examination of what responsibilities and expectations still burden women despite the progress of feminism. The class critique of the film is particularly sharp. At one point, Marion asks why Susannah is so eager to fund Rose’s career when she wouldn’t chip in for her last maid’s medical bills. Nothing, even philanthropy, is really free.
You could level the same criticism at Wild Rose that you can aim at any other feel-good indie movie in this mold. At times, the scenes are too saccharine. At other times, the film is impossibly heartbreaking and offers the swelling soundtrack to match the mood. And, of course, the redemptive moments sometimes feel too complete. But, even the most jaded filmgoers will be too worn down by the film’s charms to pay attention to its seams.
The blueprint is there for an Oscar campaign for Buckley. Though it is a young company, Neon ran a solid best actress effort for Margot Robbie in 2017 with I. Tonya. Singing parts always appeal to the Academy, as we saw most recently with Rami Malek and Bohemian Rhapsody. The better comparison here, however, is Crazy Heart which earned Jeff Bridges his Oscar in 2010. And honestly, she acts and sings better here than Bridges did in that one.
Even if Wild Rose and Buckley don’t break through in the way Neon is expecting, Wild Rose is worth seeking out. The combination of the music, the Glaswegian setting, and Buckley’s powerhouse acting create a transcendent experience. These are notes we’ve heard before, but they are played with such heart and such care that Wild Rose feels like a whole new song.
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Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.