A winsome crossover between the social-realism of Ken Loach and the country spirit of Kacey Musgraves, Tom Harper’s “Wild Rose” might follow the familiar melodies of a fish-out-of-water crowdpleaser, but this story of a delinquent Glasgow woman who dreams of singing at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry still manages to sound unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Credit for that belongs to the ridiculous talent of Jessie Buckley, whose unbridled lead performance builds on her work in “Beast” and “Chernobyl” to confirm the young Irish star as one of the most exciting people you could ever hope to see on a movie screen.
There may be an off-the-rack quality to the film around her, as Nicole Taylor’s script doesn’t quite thread the needle between blue-collar drudgery and fairy tale plotting — it’s hard to fit an ankle monitor into a cowboy boot — but Buckley wears her role like it’s covered in sparkly rhinestones that nobody else can see. She’s a force of nature in every scene, but your heart stops beating whenever she starts to sing. No matter how contrived or hackneyed things get, Buckley’s voice always breaks through the clouds like some kind of divine revelation. And that voice only gets more powerful when “Wild Rose” finally gives it something to say.
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Most of what you need to know about Rose-Lynn Harlan can be learned in five seconds flat; she wears her heart on her sleeve, and keeps her mantra tattooed on the arm underneath: “Three chords and the truth.” But this red-headed spitfire — feral, brusque, and always wearing a pair of giant headphones to blast Emmylou Harris and block out the rest of the world — isn’t being entirely honest with herself. For one thing, Rose-Lynn blames everyone else for her troubles because she can’t stand to confront her own culpability. It’s easier for her to saunter out of prison singing “Outlaw State of Mind” if she just keeps telling herself she was too high to even know that she was smuggling heroin when she got pinched. And it’s easier for her to stroll right back into Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry (a real place!) and pick up her dreams where she left them if she pretends that her two young kids are better off being raised by their grandmother (the great Julie Walters). As the song goes: “Country girl, got to keep on keepin’ on.”
Rose-Lynn knows what she was born to do, and she can’t live with being born an ocean away from the only place that she can do it. The girl is a country soul in a Scottish body, complete with a thick accent that melts away like butter whenever Buckley sings. At one point Rose-Lynn even likens her dislocation to the dysphoria of being trans; that analogy doesn’t hold up too well, but she’s not big on nuance or sensitive towards anyone besides herself.
She shags her Elvis-looking boyfriend in public and starts fights with anyone who crosses her path, a tendency that gets Rose-Lynn fired from her bartending job and forces her to work as a housekeeper for a wealthy mom in some posh suburb. Sophie Okonedo is a refreshing gust of warm air in the role, and the slightly patronizing interest this rich black lady takes in her uncouth new employee is an effective inversion of the “blind side” dynamic in a movie where everyone is pushing back against social presumptions. It’s Okonedo’s character who paves the way for Rose-Lynn to pursue her dream (in a subplot that echoes Buckley’s own journey as a runner-up on a popular British singing competition), and it’s Okonedo’s character who Rose-Lynn curiously neglects to tell about her kids.
At its core, “Wild Rose” is a story about a single mother struggling to find a sustainable balance between hope and responsibility — between dreams and reality — and the eyes-on-the-road desperation of Buckley’s performance makes it easy to appreciate how Rose-Lynn feels cornered into choosing one or the other. To us, she’s all things at once: Lovable for her raw talent and quixotic imagination, but loathsome for being a shit parent who takes her own mom for granted, and Buckley leans into both sides with a reckless abandon that makes Taylor’s script feel much less schematic than it must have read on the page. But Harper isn’t always sure what to do with all that energy.
While the performance scenes are shot with emotional clarity, much of the movie feels sluggish by comparison — like it’s just trying to split the difference between the visceral sweep of Rose-Lynn’s voice and the drab colorlessness of her circumstances. Harper is hesitant to break the mold and let his film’s heroine impose her will; a small handful of lightly fantastical asides suggest the director had the impulse to let Rose-Lynn take the wheel, but he pulls back, as if he were afraid that too much enthusiasm might undo the “no place like home” morality that ties the story together. But Rose’s voice is so powerful that every word she sings comes out like the gospel truth, and so when she belts out the movie’s climactic number — an original barnstormer co-written by Mary Steenburgen! — it’s impossible not to just take the character at her word.
In fairness, Buckley is almost too talented for “Wild Rose” to make sense; with that kind of voice and charisma, Nashville should just pack up and come to her. That might be the only ending simpler and more satisfying than the one the movie actually finds, as Harper’s stirring fable recovers from its clichés just in time to redefine what it really means for someone to live out their dreams.
Neon will release “Wild Rose” in theaters on June 21.