If someone ever decides to make a biopic about Chrissie Hynde (and by God, they should), we now have the perfect actress to play her: Jessie Buckley. The resemblance is remarkable (the sharp nose and distinctive slanted-tooth smile, the surly sparkle), and Buckley has a set of pipes that can sing just about anything. She’s also a tremendous actress, and maybe a born star. In “Wild Rose,” she plays Rose-Lynn, a brazen young ne’er-do-well from Glasgow who is fixated on going to Nashville to become a country singer. When she gets up on stage at a local pub and lets loose, time melts away (we’re in the zone of incandescent tradition that is country), and so does every trace of her Scottishness. She becomes country, and her gift is transporting. Yet Rose-Lynn is also a spectacular screw-up. “Wild Rose,” the closest thing to a sleeper I’ve seen at Toronto this year, is a happy-sad drama of starstruck fever that lifts you up and sweeps you along, touching you down in a puddle of well-earned tears.
The director, Tom Harper, and screenwriter, Nicole Taylor, play a bait-and-switch game that’s different from anything I’ve encountered in a movie like this one. For a solid hour, “Wild Rose” seduces you into thinking it’s going to be exactly the sort of cheeky inspirational fairy tale it turns out not to be. It’s not just that the movie gets better as it goes along — it actually knows it’s toying with you. The neat trick of “Wild Rose” is that the film seems to grow up before your eyes and find its glimmer of soul right along with its eager, talented, messed-up heroine.
At the beginning, Rose-Lynn gets released from prison, where she’s just served a year on a drug charge, and the first thing she does, after having her ankle bracelet snapped on, is to go over to her dude friend’s house for a post-incarceration boink. It almost seems an afterthought when she swings by her mum’s place, where Rose-Lynn then sits down to dinner with her own two kids, who are five and eight years old. Oh, them! Rose-Lynn gave birth to both before she was 18 (we don’t even hear about the fathers — one presumes that there’s more than one), and it’s shocking to see just how little heed she pays them. She’s too selfish for motherhood. She’s too selfish to take responsibility for anything she’s done.
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Yet despite this gaping hole inside her, it’s the strategy of “Wild Rose” to sweep you up in the narcissistic charge of Rose-Lynn’s personality — her ebullient self-directed chatter, her obsession with singing. Jessie Buckley has a presence that’s pure fire. Even when Rose-Lynn is annoying, which is often, you can’t tear your eyes away from her.
She gets a job as a housekeeper working for Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), in a lovely suburban home, and when she sings a song for her, which takes Susannah’s breath away, we’ve got a hunch where the film is headed. Susannah decides to finance Rose-Lynn’s voyage to Nashville by crowd-funding it. For her 50th birthday, she’ll have Rose-Lynn perform at the party, with a band, and ask her guests to pony up in lieu of offering her a birthday present. That’s how much she believes in Rose-Lynn’s talent. And so…
Diamond-in-the-rough Scottish country singer with a personality problem but a voice as big as the room? Check. Saintly bourgeois benefactor whose love and support of Rose-Lynn turns this into a sisterhood buddy film? Check. All culminating in a trip to Nashville where Rose-Lynn struts her stuff and parades her artistry and proves her mettle? Check.
Every one of those elements is in place. Except that’s not how it goes down at all!
“Wild Rose” manipulates us into expecting a certain template of triumph. When Rose-Lynn declares that she loves country music because it’s “three chords and the truth” (a slogan she has tattooed on her arm), we think: Okay, that’s cute and tidy in a hipster way, and we can accept that’s the level the film is operating on. Only it’s not. “Wild Rose” knows what a reductive vision of country that is. The film, you see, has other plans. It pulls the country road out from under you. And that’s when it starts to get really good.
Rose-Lynn makes the trip to Nashville, all right. For a moment, the film indulges the romance of her down-home dream. During a tour of Ryman Auditorium, the fabled home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, she slips away and onto the stage and sings a number a capella, and a musician who happens to be packing up after a rehearsal picks up his fiddle and accompanies her. It’s gorgeous — and right then, we’re all but ready for the movie to end. We don’t need to see Rose-Lynn become a star. That she’s there, in Nashville, with the desire and the gift God gave her, is enough.
But then she does something we really don’t expect. It’s a thing she has to do, and now realizes she wants to do. Yet it has nothing to do with singing — and, as it turns out, it has everything to do with singing. And at that moment, we’re moved beyond words. “Wild Rose” tells a richly stirring human story, but by the time the movie reaches its final number, which Buckley performs with an incandescent star-is-born glow, it lets you experience what the glory of country music really is: an art torn straight from life itself.