Country music has a long history of brazen women doggedly persevering over daunting personal odds, from Kitty Wells to Loretta Lynn. Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley), the protagonist of Tom Harper’s new social-realist music drama Wild Rose, has a life story that’s similar to those of her idols: She’s in her early twenties, fresh off of a twelve-month prison sentence on drug charges, and trying — but mostly failing — to reconnect with her eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son. Her disapproving mother Marion (Julie Walters) wants Rose-Lynn to give up her dream of becoming a country (not “country-western”) singer. But to Rose-Lynn, country music is “three chords and the truth.” And you just can’t deny the truth.
It doesn’t take long to get a feel for Rose-Lynn: She’s a red-headed spitfire who’s always wearing a pair of giant headphones to blast tunes and block out the rest of the world. In that though, she also isn’t 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 stroll 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 arrested. And it’s easier for her to stroll right back into Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry and pick up her dreams where she left them if she pretends that her two kids are better off being raised by her mom.
Rose-Lynn knows exactly what she was born to do, and she can’t live with being born on the opposite side of the world from the only place that she can do it. She’s a country soul in a Scottish body, complete with a thick accent that fades away whenever Buckley sings. She shags her 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 a posh suburb. Sophie Okonedo is a warm presence in that role, and her character brings an effective inversion of the “blind side” dynamic between the two in 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, and it’s Okonedo’s character who Rose-Lynn curiously neglects to tell about her kids.
At its core, Wild Rose is more of a story about a single mother struggling to find a sustainable balance between hope and responsibility. And desperation in Buckley’s performance makes it easy to appreciate how Rose-Lynn feels cornered into choosing one or the other. To us, she’s everything at once: Lovable for her raw talent and idealistic imagination, but repulsed for being such a terrible parent who takes her own mom for granted, and Buckley leans into both sides that rising above Nicole Taylor’s script. But Harper isn’t always sure what to do with all that energy. While the big performance scenes are shot with emotional clarity, much of the movie feels kind of sluggish by comparison (largely because the plot does begin to be all over the place). Harper seems hesitant to break the mold and let his film’s heroine impose her will, seemingly afraid that too much enthusiasm might undo the “no place like home” morality that ties everything together. But Rose’s voice is so powerful that every word she sings comes out like the truth, and so when she belts out the movie’s climactic number it’s almost impossible not to just take the character at her word.
Wild Rose may follow the familiar rhythms of an aspiring-artist crowdpleaser, but it separates itself through a guiding, brilliant performance by Jessie Buckley. Her voice like a sugar cube dissolving in a glass of whiskey, sweet enough to bring tears to your eyes and hefty enough for a lingery aftertaste. She pours plenty of emotion into her performance, provoking sympathy for Rose-Lynn’s confused and chaotic mental state, no matter how frustrating her impulsive behavior might get. And while things may get a little contrived and hackneyed, Buckley’s voice always breaks through the clouds like a kind of divine revelation. But, as said before, Wild Rose carries a crowd-pleasing spirit and it animates the film. But with that also comes a spirit of nuance, and Rose-Lynn’s soul searching leads her to an honest, hard-earned understanding of who she is and who she is destined to become. What she learns has clear implications, too, for those of us in the audience who count ourselves among her new fans: We may not be able to outrun the past, but that doesn’t mean we have to give it the final lyric.