Monday, May 20, 2024

Country music is “three chords and the truth,” declares our troubled lead in “Wild Rose,” and that immediate, emotional vivacity defines the film as much as the music. There isn’t much we haven’t seen at this point when it comes to films about music stars on the make – the down-on-their-luck/can’t-make-ends-meet/battling-inner-demon types – and those three chords can only be played so many ways, so many times, making the person holding the guitar, singing the lyrics and, in this case, telling the story the way to stand apart from the pack. Luckily for “Wild Rose,” Jessie Buckley has a hell of a set of pipes. She shines from the moment she’s onscreen, and it’s because of her and the screenplay by Nicole Taylor that the film doesn’t flounder amid familiar tropes.

Rose-Lynn is just recently out of jail due to drunkenly smuggling heroin (though she says it was never her intent) and returning home to two children under the age of 10 that she had before she was 18, with a mother looking on disapprovingly. She has raw talent and outsized dreams of going to Tennessee, believing that Glasgow isn’t the appropriate home for her country star gifts. Adorned in white cowboy boots and equipped with a sailor’s mouth, Rose-Lynn is forced through the growing pains of not just taking responsibility for her children, but of taking hold of her future and seeing how the two connect. The script transcends convention when it refuses to grant us, or its lead, easy answers, dodging feel-good gratification in favor of making her strive and beat the odds within an inch of losing it all. Unfortunately, the script can only find ways around conventional storytelling for so long before it finds its way to a safe and feel-good ending. 

While Rose-Lynn has been put through the emotional wringer (self-inflicted and otherwise) and while she deserves a win, the one she gets rings false, and tonally dissonant from the rest of the film. Until that point, director Tom Harper – best known for British television imports “This is England,” “Misfits” and “War & Peace” – and cinematographer George Steel had achieved a grainy realism. Backdropped in gray, Buckley, with her boots and shocking red hair, stood out all the more, a star in a home where she had to fight for local country night gigs. That gloomy tint made for a more engaging story because we believed Rose-Lynn was gifted but mired in an uphill battle; the ending is glossy, too wholesome to match with the atmosphere, even if it leaves us audience members in a good mood once the credits roll, us too bucking cynicism for something warmer. Rose-Lynn may believe she was born to be an American; by film’s end, it’s clear her heart will always remain in Glasgow.

Those are quibbles compared with the spell Buckley casts, so alive and simmering with unspent anger and promise that she lights the screen aflame. She is a true star in the making, obvious with this, her supporting turn in HBO’s “Chernobyl” and last year’s “Beast”; as Rose-Lynn, her pent-up frustration at the way her life has gone bursts through in her empowering vocals, syrupy sweet and full of longing. Even when she’s at her most impulsive, most infuriatingly selfish, we can’t help but root for her – her talent is immense, and she shines brightest when she’s fully immersed in it. Julie Walters, playing her mom, is similarly good, if more subdued. As a woman who’s allowed life to happen to her, rather than striking out to make the most of it first, her distrust of Rose-Lynn’s dream is clear, never villainized, and hints at layers that won’t get the chance to be uncovered in this film alone. 

Engulfing you further into the world is the music by Jack Arnold. Without it – as with Buckley’s determined gaze – “Wild Rose” might not have thrown such an emotional punch. It’s a film whose escapism comes from the ability to sell us on the belief that a good song, meaningful lyricism or perfectly positioned vibrato, soothed by the low twang of a guitar, can transport us from our own overcast realities. In its own imperfect way the film manages to do just that, sweeping us away with Rose as she closes her eyes and moves to the music. Rough around the edges it might be, like its heroine, but “Wild Rose” is a song worth listening to.