Country music comes alive in the poignant coming-of-age drama Wild Rose. Irish ingénue Jessie Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn Harlan, a Scottish singer with dreams of being the next Nashville star. With an outlaw’s heart and an angel’s voice, Rose-Lynn strides down the streets of Glasgow in white cowboy boots and a matching leather jacket, in search of a good time or some stage time. She’s the kind of rough-and-tumble girl who enjoys a rowdy night out, a wild adventure, or a quick shag in a public park. And while this lifestyle led to jail time, now that’s she’s out, the greater obstacle to her could-be career as a country singer is being a single-mom to her young children, Winona and Lyle.
Twenty-something Rose-Lynn is at a merciless juncture where she must choose who she will be. Will she continue to play the hellion, who causes a scene, gets kicked out of clubs, and thrown behind bars? Or will she get a reliable job and become a dependable parent to her children? Whatever its warts, Rose-Lynn sees the first path as the one forged by country greats like Johnny Cash. And while she loves her kids, she struggles to find fulfillment in them and her day-job as a house-cleaner. Then, an unlikely friendship with a wealthy housewife (Sophie Okonedo) offers Rose-Lynn a shot at the big time. But will choosing her passion mean rejecting her children?
The sharp script by Nicole Taylor refuses to set this dynamic up as one big choice. While the plot gears to climactic concert, Rose-Lynn make choices each day that nurture or wound her children, sometimes literally. Progress is not a straight line, and Wild Rose knows it, revealing the hard and winding path Rose-Lynn carves to maturity. She relishes being seen as a free spirit with no baggage and a ton of potential. She cringes at the reality that she’s a harried mom with plenty of baggage but few skills. Yet over the course of this compelling drama, director Tom Harper slowly unfurls that “all or nothing” are not the only paths for Rose-Lynn. After all, maturity means compromise.
Thematically, Wild Rose is stirring. But what makes this movie explosive is the lead performance of Buckley. She struts onto screen with a crooked grin and a mischievous glint in her eye that makes her an instantly engaging rascal. Her face is so young and her zeal so radiant that we want to buy into the fantasy Rose-Lynn sells herself about being carefree. Following her into pubs and brawls and sloppy hook-ups is intoxicating fun. But Buckley balances Rose-Lyn’s “childish ways” and her own chaotic charisma with a softness that stings. When her smile crashes into an open-mouthed frown, our spirits drop with hers. When she cries, you might well check your cheeks for tears. And when she sings, she is a siren, bending the audience under her control, making us shiver, sob, and cheer.
“You really do have a big voice,” Rose-Lynn is advised. “So what do you have to say?” As she figures that out, Buckley delivers tender lullabies, sultry love songs, jaunty jams, and a power ballad that’ll make hearts soar. With each musical moment, Buckley sings the song of every dreamer whose goal seems insane yet is unbelievably important. With a voice of fire and stardust, Buckley sings of Rose-Lynn’s shiny hopes, hidden heartaches, and rawest revelations, creating a journey that’s heartwarming, pulse racing, and toe-tapping.
Wild Rose played at the Bentonville Film Festival ahead of its U.S. theatrical release on June 21.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com