At the heart of Wild Rose is a simple, thematically poignant phrase: “Three chords and the truth.” It’s the mantra by which protagonist Rose-Lynn Harlan lives by, a philosophy to describe country music’s popularity, and an ironic truth she must accept to overcome personal obstacles. Because Wild Rose is framed around this phrase’s inner meanings, it allows the film’s various cliches to accommodates the narrative rather than feel conventional. Thanks to a solid, heavily Scottish (think James McAvoy in the SNL Air Traffic Control sketch) performance from newcomer Jessie Buckley, and you have a film that’s equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking, despite its familiarities.
If you didn’t know Buckley before Wild Rose, this role will leave quite an impression. She plays Rose-Lynn, a fiery-haired, 23-year old single mother and aspiring country singer finally released from a year-long prison sentence for drug felony. Returning home to Glasgow with an ankle bracelet, Rose-Lynn knows what she wants to do: raise enough money to get a plane ticket to Nashville and start a budding musical profession. Unfortunately reality is much more complicated.
As we soon learn, Rose-Lynn’s aspirations are hindered by her maternal failings. She had two kids at a young age- a boy and a girl- but it’s her mother Marion (Julia Walters) whom they perceive as a stronger guardian. Rose-Lynn wants to be that figure but refuses to let her dream career go, resulting in multiple cases where she either breaks promises or forgets them because a new opportunity arises. To make ends meet, she gets a housekeeping job for a local upper middle-class socialite named Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who soon becomes entranced by her singing skills. Their friendship even spawns access to some contacts for could give Rose-Lynn her big break. Unfortunately, this coincides with her attempt to spend more time with the kids.
We’ve seen variations of this plot enough times before: adult with ambition and a desire to escape her dreary existence torn between career and family. Which will she pick? You can guess that outcome. However, it’s the journey that matters more and Wild Rose’s journey works because Rose-Lynn is compelling. She’s brash, lively and rebellious, doing everything from having public sex with a male FWB immediately post-prison to bringing her lawyer onto a country bar dance floor. She’s a rebel and music lets her express that personality to a wider crowd. It helps that Buckley has an amazing voice, rivaling Taron Egerton’s Elton John performance for best singing character of 2019.
Yet Rose-Lynn is also deeply unreliable, especially when it comes to basic parental responsibilities. She struggles to reconnect with her family and doesn’t even mention her past- both kids and prison time- to her employers. Partially because it makes her aspirations seem more youthful but also because admitting their existence would force Rose-Lynn to prioritize her family over personal ambition. Her mother understands those sacrifices, having worked the same job for two decades and taken care of the kids when her daughter wasn’t around. All to ensure everyone had a potential future. But it’s ironically through singing that Rose-Lynn bridges that awkward distance between her strengths and faults at home.
This isn’t a ‘superstar in the making’ film like A Star is Born, despite what the premise might suggest. Wild Rose discuss the liberating power of country music, but it’s ultimately less about fame and more about accepting what you have now, even if that ‘now’ is a part of Glasgow. Rose-Lynn does meet people who could potentially lift her music career, including a meeting with BBC Radio’s Bob Harris (playing himself), courtesy of her friendship with Susannah. Their relationship is genuinely sweet and supportive, but it’s also a product of Rose-Lynn refusing to divulge the harder parts of her personal life. You can predict how that story plays out but, thanks to Buckley’s performance, it’s hard not to sympathize with Rose-Lynn despite her self-centered decisions.
The music of Wild Rose is equally solid and catchy. Unpopular opinion: I actually enjoy country music and, while I didn’t recognize most of the songs, Buckley was always phenomenal singing them. She knew just how to sound vulnerable, yet at peace behind the microphone, as evident by one solo performance near the very end. She believes in her voice but not so much in her ability to, as Marion put it, “stick at things” over a long period of time. The journey thus becomes about ensuring that responsibility to her family sticks just long enough.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 Stars.
Wild Rose has a plot you’ve seen before, but a strong protagonist and musical numbers ensure you don’t mind. And it comes out at just the right moment for Jessie Buckley, who, alongside her recent performance in HBO’s Chernobyl, proves that she has a bright future ahead. It’s brash and heartbreaking, but strikes a good chord (or three) and some truth along the way.