Star-making turns in films have seemed to quieten down over the last few years. It’s rare now for a relative-unknown to put in a storming performance that immediately drowns you with glee over their future in the industry. I say that with the full knowledge that Irish actor Jessie Buckley has already had stellar turns in the likes of Beast and television’s Taboo, but if I were to take one thing away from Tom Harper’s Wild Rose it’s that she’s going to go far.
Funnily enough, that entire sentiment isn’t far away from the film’s unfortunately-limited premise. Rose-Lynn Harlan (Buckley) is a young woman from Glasgow who’s recently finished a twelve-month stint in jail. Coming home to her earnest mother Marion (Julie Walters) and two young kids doesn’t interest her too much, as her first stop outside the big house is for a quick shag from her boyfriend down at the local park. Too young to be giving in to the lifestyle motherhood has to offer, Rose dreams of travelling to Nashville in order to fulfill her dream of becoming the next big country music star like her idols. However, as opportunities begin to rise for her at the cost of her relationship with her family, she soon has to make a decision between the two and realise what it means to actually grow up for once in her life.
The very notion of forcing the worlds of Nashville country music and the cold terrain of Glasgow, Scotland together is an interesting one for sure. The dichotomy of plucked guitar strings, destined for the glow of a sun-baked field, accompanying the grey and moist tarmac-ridden Scottish streets is enough to raise a smile. It’s these small flourishes that craft the comedic element of this comedy drama outside of Rose herself. Her brazen attitude and willingness to try anything to reach her dream and show no remorse allows Buckley to carry the film on her shoulders. She’s endearing in the best possible way and no other performance outside Julie Walters as her grounded mother comes close to matching her throughout the entire runtime.
In an effort to get back on her feet Rose is soon hired by bourgeoisie Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) as a cleaner, and what follows is most likely the first thought you could think of. As they notice their clash of backgrounds, Susannah’s hope for Rose’s career after hearing her sing allows her to make some connections for her newfound friend. Soon enough Rose is off to London and the BBC in order to meet with some of the country’s radio producers to enquire about kick-starting her career.
It’s the same way that Patti Cake$ detailed the story of a young woman trying to make a career in rap, and unfortunately many times throughout Wild Rose has an overwhelming sense of ‘been here, done that’. Nicole Taylor’s script is subtle, whilst Rose is able to get away with every one-liner thanks to her cocky and happy-go-lucky delivery, everyone outside of her family often feels like an afterthought. But this is her story, and it’s when her personal connection with the music comes into play that the film manages to hit its stride even if it’s only for a moment or two. A talented singer too, director Tom Harper milks the intimacy of Rose’s performances for all they’re worth by keeping close to her and creating a handful of moments where everything in the film stands still. George Steel’s cinematography elevates the content a little, with some brilliant use of natural lighting early on to create Rose’s isolation from her dream to counteract her mundane lifestyle too. There could have been more of a stylistic imprint on the subject matter beyond the typical focus shifts and handheld work, but a story like this often doesn’t need fancy packaging.
There’s obviously a heft of love and knowledge for the genre that Harper shows, and it’s a shame that the film doesn’t lean into this territory more often. Instead, Rose’s home life and reluctance to accept her status as a mother comes across like a haphazard kitchen-sink drama akin to something like a light I, Daniel Blake. This bait and switch between genres sounds like an interesting experiment on paper, but there’s often some spark missing and it stops the film from reaching the heights of its peers. At first glance, Rose as a protagonist is loud and childish, still holding onto a child-like dream with such ferocity that it’s difficult to resonate with her as a character. It perhaps says something about me that as she began to become worn down, I started to relate to her more and actually enjoy my time with her. This isn’t terrible however, as much like Rose-Lynn the film manages to find its footing as it goes on. The balancing act between aspirational drama and dry Scottish wit blends together, and the film’s final act manages to nail the emotional beats needed in order to feel worthy of your time.
Susannah eventually believes in Rose’s talent so much that she helps to crowdfund her tickets to Nashville herself by using her connections (being rich obviously means you know powerful people). It’s here where I felt the inevitable climax building. I prematurely wrote off Wild Rose to end on an emotional powerhouse performance that would lead Rose walking in her cowgirl boots down the sun-ridden streets of America brimming with confidence. Whilst, in a way, I was greeted with that image, the circumstances were entirely different. Rose’s previous incarceration for drug possession is actually utilised instead of being swept under the rug, and whilst the dramatic elements never feel fully realised, they’re enough to add the needed emotionality which drives the audience through to the real finale.
And about the music? While I’m not particularly well-versed in the likes of country, Jack Arnold’s music works well and Buckley’s voice bolsters every time she’s allowed to show us the size of her lungs. The film’s few original songs are definitely worthy of note and gleam as highlights in a way that would even make Dolly Parton proud. These stand out moments help flesh out the pacing of the film too, which at times seems to feel rushed and meddling as Rose goes back and forth between her family and her dream.
Wild Rose often feels like a manufactured piece of work. Its eager-to-please attitude and light storytelling will require you to really connect with the character in order to remember the events of the film, as sadly more often than not it feels as though there’s nothing to bring you back to an all-too familiar world. However it’s worth noting that the story told by Harper and Nicole Taylor feels like the backstory to the greatest country album ever. If you’re able to focus in on country’s ability to draw from real-life experience in “three chords and the truth”, then you might just find an extra layer of meaning in this miniature tale of stardom.
“May all your heartbreaks be songs. And all your songs be hits.”