According to Wild Rose, the country music scene reaches much farther than the American South. Well beyond Nashville, well beyond Austin, and all the way to Scotland. No, Glasgow’s cowboy culture is not large, nor is it internationally notable, but it exists, and it’s in this little pocket of twang that we meet Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), a recent ex-convict with a short lifetime of poor decisions behind her, and a dream of country music super-stardom ahead of her. She’s a bit rough around the edges. She curses like a sailor, drinks like a fish, and often exhibits a hair-trigger inclination towards violence when she doesn’t get her way. At the outset of the film, she’s not even that likable. But one thing is certain: when it comes to fronting a country band, there’s simply no one better.
Rose is a natural talent, capable of turning any gathering into a party with seemingly little effort. It’s no wonder that, even in desperate circumstances, people are always looking to give her a leg up. She’s so talented that she’s worth investing in, even if she isn’t nearly as mature as she should be. Her mother (Julie Walters) desperately wants her to take responsibility for her life; to find stability; to take care of her young children. But for Rose, anything that stands in the way of her dreams is exactly that: a hurdle.
Nicole Taylor’s script is aware of the tropes inherent to underdog stories, and in a post-A Star is Born world, it’s easy to be led down a path of narrative expectation. Yet every moment we are primed to expect is cleverly subverted by, to put it simply, reality. There are no big moments of “she’s really doing it!” Nor are we ever given any nauseous instances of “I heard your voice and I just knew I had to make you famous.” Nope, this is all about hard work and forging connections. Nothing more, nothing less. By giving Rose such a dense personal life, we often wonder whether or not we even want her to make it as an entertainer. If following her dreams is going to be at the expense of those who depend upon her, is it really worth it?
Wild Rose grapples with these questions respectably and thoroughly, landing at a supremely satisfying conclusion that brought a tear to my eye.
Director Tom Harper has a straightforward style which gives way to moments of stylistic punctuation. Tilt-shift photography is employed for a handful of establishing shots, which is not often seen outside of heightened narratives (Wes Anderson has begun employing it to purposefully cartoonish effect), while the performance scenes are captured in a handheld, documentary style, complete with choppy zooms and clinical applications of rack focus. It excites and entertains, capturing simultaneously the intoxicating draw Rose feels toward the stage, and the truth of the talent it requires to be there.
If there’s any reason to see Wild Rose, ad there are many, it’s the star-making performance by Jessie Buckley. Herself an oddball discovery of sorts (she gained stardom by coming in second place on the BBC talent show I’d Do Anything), she ably captures Rose’s hunger for more than just a regular life. She evokes empathy in a character who, on the surface, doesn’t seem worthy of it. She gives Rose humanity, and it’s impossible not to fall under her spell — not to ultimately want the best for Rose, in both her professional and personal life. Her talent is unquestionable from the get go, but Wild Rose takes us on a journey into whether or not she’s deserving of the platform she so craves.
And when she does sing? Pure magic.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give the film is also the one that scares me most: I want to listen to more country.
Wild Rose was part of the 2019 PFF Spring Fest, April 12-14, 2019. It is scheduled for nationwide release in June 2019.