Uplifting character studies centered around big musical dreams and humble beginnings are commonplace enough to have their own predictable cliches: crises of confidence, magical circumstances that leapfrog the protagonist into opportunity, loved ones who doubt. They are all at play in Tom Harper’s country (nix the western) saga Wild Rose, a fable about a young Glasgow woman with Nashville dreams weighted by her reckless and sometimes criminal behavior. You can keep time by the how the film hits all of its very expected emotional beats and its narrative one.
But what makes the film one of the most moving recent films of its kind is Wild Rose’s divergent final perspective, one that surprises and shadows the film’s closing moments with a grounded emotional truth that makes for a hell of a soaring closing number. Add to the mix a sensational performance from future superstar Jessie Buckley as the troublesome Rose-Lynn and you have one of the summer’s most joyous movie pleasures.
The film opens as Rose-Lynn finishes a prison sentence and returns home to her mother (Julie Walters) and two young children she had had in her teens. Despite the apparent setback of criminality, Rose-Lynn remains steadfast in her certainty of leaving for America and becoming a country star. She takes on as a home cleaner, and her boss (Sophie Okonedo) quickly takes onto her musical gifts and uses her connections to advance her career. But as opportunities arise, Rose-Lynn struggles to accept the responsibilities of either her motherhood or her burgeoning singing career.
Things go as right and as wrong for Rose-Lynn as the traditional story beats demand, sometimes frustratingly so like the unquestioning confidence of Okonedo’s wealthy benefactor. But the film undercuts the less plausible turns with an emotional authenticity and compassion that dominates. Harper presents a believable working class world, if not always stakes, that builds into a hard-earned climax both rousing and finally sober.
What surprises is that the film is ultimately about how dreams are not enough and that this still isn’t a downer. Rose-Lynn’s journey isn’t one of dreams actualized but of the gratitude that comes with finally knowing oneself and one’s place. The timing of these unexpected notes to Rose-Lynn’s arc suggests that Harper and screenwriter Nicole Taylor are self-aware of the genre’s trappings and trying to subtly work against them. Wild Rose is already delightful, but the final act makes it stratospheric – even if its ideas about displaced identity never fully form.
Much of this can also be attributed to the genuinely star-making turn by Buckley. Each of the film’s definitive characteristics are found in her performance in abundance: middle-class grit with effervescent warmth, country vulnerability, rapturous musicality. Buckley is watchable in the mainstream sense and thrilling in the idiosyncratic one, promising a new talent ready to dominate across genres and cinematic scale. The tidal wave of feeling she lends Wild Rose bleeds over into the narrative itself: it feels like the beginning of something real.