There is much on the rhinestone-encrusted surface of director Tom Harper’s British indie Wild Rose which plays according to recent cinematic trends. A talented, but bawdy young Scottish singer stuck in place tries like hell to get the rest of the world to recognize her obvious star potential, leading us to root for her to finally make it. The soundtrack is sprinkled with an impeccable selection of originals and classics. The whole thing serves as a showcase for a mesmerizing central performance from an actress, Jessie Buckley (so good in Beast last year, even better here), whose raw vulnerability and undeniable vocal talents command attention.
However, don’t rush to write off Wild Rose as the latest in the suddenly crowded sub-genre of movies about musicians, either fictional (Her Smell, Vox Lux, A Star is Born, Teen Spirit) or biographical (Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody). Instead, Wild Rose maturely peeks under the surface of a possible Cinderella story in search of character study about a woman forced to examine the selfishness of her own dreams. Plus, damn, the songs are total gems. It’s my favorite film of the year so far.
Here’s Buckley performing “Country Girl” at a Wild Rose screening after party:
We first meet Buckley’s Rose-Lynn Harlan – henceforth referred to as Rose in this review – on her final day in prison. Tacked to her wall is a map of Tennessee with a pin stuck in Nashville, to go along with a variety of pictures of famous country music performers. We don’t know how she got in prison, but we clearly know where she wants to go next. As she giddily walks out the door, fellow prisoners encouragingly shout after her to go and become the next Dolly Parton. She, of course, shouts right back.
Dolly has to wait, though. Rose has been locked away for 12 months. An obvious itch needs to be scratched. So, her first stop is to march right to an old boyfriend’s Glasgow flat, knock on the door, and march him to a grassy hill overlooking a highway for an energetic shag. They drink and smoke afterward before she moves on to her next stop, ignoring his shouts after her about when they’ll see each other again.
As character introductions go, this one’s pretty damn economical. From prison release to reunion shag, we instantly get a sense of Rose has a hard-partying woman who lives the life she sings about in other people’s songs. (The fact that she doesn’t write her own songs looms large later.) It’s once Rose gets to her mom’s house, though, that we get a clearer picture of what’s truly standing between her and Nashville.
For starters, there’s the Atlantic Ocean. Obviously. More than that, as part of her prison release Rose has to wear an ankle monitor and can’t leave her house at night. The old bar she used to work at won’t take her back meaning she has to take a job as a maid. Her mother (a heartbreaking Julie Walters) desperately wants her to finally grow up, sensibly pointing out that saving up enough money to move to Nashville and hoping to get “discovered” isn’t really a plan. More importantly, Rose has two young kids to think about, both of whom she had before her 18th birthday.
Wild Rose interestingly plays between these two worlds. In one half of the film, Rose’s single-minded pursuit of stardom – some doors are opened when her well-connected boss (Sophie Okonedo) overhears her singing and offers to help – builds to several obvious breakthrough moments. At the same time, however, in the other half of the film Rose makes sporadic stabs at being a good mother but consistently puts her aspirations ahead of her kids. (The completely absent father is never even referenced.)
This works to create a wildly effective juxtaposition, giving us one standout scene of Rose achingly crooning Wynonna Judd’s “Peace in this House” to an adoring collection of on-lookers, none of whom have any idea how little her actual life lines up with the lyrics. Inevitably, the two sides of Rose’s life collide and she is forced to decide if she can truly have it all or if her dreams supersede everything.
What Wild Rose does with this dilemma continually surprised me. There were multiple times where I assumed the film was wrapping things up only to be delighted with the way it kept going. It ends up not just being a story about a woman dueling with her own selfishness but also a portrait of a country singer discovering what it is that she actually has to say about the world. In many ways, Rose’s life resembles something straight out of a country song, just substitute Scotland for America. Watching her turn that life into a song is one of the most heart-warming journeys I’ve gone on with any movie character in quite a while.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A compelling Cinderella story about a singer who has to learn to be an adult before her star can be born, Wild Rose is too good to have been seen by so few people at this point. This me my throwing my support behind the “Jessie Buckley for Best Actress” campaign.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHT
Obvious triple feature idea for movie theater programmers: Wild Rose, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and The Thing Called Love.
Wild Rose is playing in limited release in the States right now.