This uplifting movie about an aspiring country singer has all the requisite tropes – scrappy origins, raw talent, inner demons and hard-won redemption – but manages to soar thanks to some different story beats and an electrifying performance from Jessie Buckley.
I liked Jessie Buckley in everything I saw her in, but Wild Rose really gives the Irish actress a chance to command the screen and mesmerise with her talents – including a genuinely fantastic singing voice. Here she plays Rose-Lynn Harlan, a wild 23-year-old who’s convinced that she was born on the wrong side of the globe, Glasgow instead of Nashville, Tennessee. Rose-Lynn’s love for country music (don’t call it “country & western” unless you want to her to bristle) is so deep she even has three chords and the truth in ink on her arm.
As the movie begins, Nashville might as well be on the moon and Rose-Lynn’s dreams of country stardom look hopelessly out of reach. She’s fresh out of jail where she spent a year on drug charges, and her flashy white cowgirl boots hide an electronic tag around her ankle. She’s lost her job in the house band at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry. Her exasperated mother Marion (Julie Walters) wants Rose-Lynn to grow up, settle down and take responsibility for the kids she’s been minding while her daughter was in prison. Both kids were born before Rose-Lynn turned eighteen, and to say that she’s not really up to the task of being a single mother is a vast understatement.
An unexpected stroke of luck happens when Rose-Lynn gets a job at a posh suburban mansion, and her employer Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) discovers an exciting talent in her new brash foul-mouthed cleaning lady. Vaguely dissatisfied with her own affluent existence, Susannah adopts Rose-Lynn as her “project” and is determined to help her break into the music business. But Rose-Lynn doesn’t tell her starry-eyed benefactor about her recent criminal past, or that she’s not really the free spirit she seems.
Rose-Lynn’s struggles with motherhood, the tension between her obligations and her aspirations, and her awkward attempts to bond with the children she doesn’t really know do bring a different element to the well-worn, rise-fall-rise formula of the genre. Reckless, unfiltered and with a destructive selfish streak, she’s hardly a picture of a responsible parent, constantly undermining whatever progress she makes. Buckley brings wonderful vulnerability to Rose-Lynn’s quieter moments, when her swagger and confidence give way to uncertainty and self-doubt.
As with most music-themed movies worth their salt, musical moments is when Wild Rose really comes alive, with Buckley completely at home and in her element whether she’s a ball of energy onstage performing with a country band, or pouring her heart out in a more quiet intimate setting. As a viewer, you may not wish for Rose-Lynn to abandon her children in a pursuit of a career, but you do end up rooting for her talent and her desire for self-fulfillment. Though this is Buckley’s movie, the lovely side performances by Julie Walters and Sophie Okonedo are also worth a mention, with the two older women each bringing a different kind of maternal energy to the story.
You could probably complain that the ending puts a bow that’s too neat and pretty for a film that mostly maintains a gritty tone throughout, but since the movie did such a great job building up goodwill for its wayward heroine, I wasn’t really in a mood for nitpicking and happily ate it up.
P.S. While I loved the Scottish accents, subtitles were definitely a must.