Of all the many, many portrayals of female musicians in movies over the last year, Wild Rose is the most honest. Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) is no Ally (Lady Gaga), plucked from obscurity by a beautiful — if damaged — bearded superstar in A Star Is Born. She bears absolutely no resemblance to Vox Lux’s manic Celeste (Natalie Portman), nor Her Smell’s drug-crazed Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss). And though Buckley herself knows well the path trod by Violet Valenski (Elle Fanning) in Teen Spirit, the character she so glowingly portrays would never compromise her art by competing on TV.
Directed by Tom Harper from a script by Nicole Taylor, Wild Rose is a love letter to country music, Glasgow, and the enduring, messy strength of mother daughter relationships.
When we first meet Rose-Lynn, she’s being released from a 12-month prison sentence for drug-running, Even as she sheds her prison uniform for her trademark white cowboy boots and leather jacket, she exudes the kind of charisma you’d expect from someone who wants to live her life onstage. Rose-Lynn is in-your-face. She’s brash, impulsive, and hopelessly devoted to country music. Convinced she was born in the wrong place, she dreams of leaving Glasgow for Nashville, where she can finally pursue her calling. The hangup: Her two kids, 8-year-old Wynnona and 5-year-old Lyle, who have been living with Rose-Lynn’s mother, Marion (Julie Walters), while their own mother pays her debt to society.
But even as she starts to reclaim her strained relationship with her kids and build a new life, Rose-Lynn wants more. She doesn’t want her mother’s life of toiling for 40 years in a bakery, anonymously. Working as a cleaning lady in upper-crust Susannah’s (Sophie Okonedo) posh mansion, and quick afternoon fucks with her ex, Elliot (James Harkness) aren’t enough. She wants the catharsis of “three chords and the truth,” the country she slogan she has tattooed on her arm. She wants fame. But can she have both?
In many ways, Wild Rose is telling a classic story of a woman balancing her career ambitions with her familial obligations. But in Harper’s hands, it morphs into a dynamic, inspiring tale of setbacks and unexpected victories, set to a vibrant, raucous country soundtrack full of old classics and new original songs — all sung live by Buckley. I’m already listening on repeat.
But most refreshing is seeing a woman’s emotional arc progress completely independently of any male characters or romantic interests. If there’s a love story here, it’s one between mothers and daughters. Rose-Lynn, who had both her kids before she turned 18, both reveres and resents them. She’s little more than a child herself, and constantly grappling with how her already precarious identity as a mother fits into her aspirations. In one poignant scene, she lies about not having kids to her employer-turned-friend Susannah, and though it’s not without some guilt, you can see her relief at being perceived as just another bright young thing on the path towards stardom. Now, contrast that with the delicate, almost shy smile Rose-Lynn gets while rifling through her kids’ school assignments as they sleep, getting to know their quirks, their interests, and their own hopes and dreams. Those moments make Wynonna’s disappointed stare-downs even harder to bear. Meanwhile, Marion and Rose’s relationship is strained over the latter’s refusal to give up on what seems like a pipe dream, even if it might cost her everything good about her life.
And then there’s the added factor of class, which leeches through every interaction between the blue-collar Rose-Lynn and bourgeois Susannah, especially when she asks her boss for a $5,000 investment in her music career, so she can get to Nashville and get her start. When Susannah refuses, Rose-Lynn nods to the water bottle in her hand: “You can’t just drink out of the tap?”
The contrast between their environments is made stark by George Steel’s cinematography, which captures the paint-peeling walls of Rose-Lynn’s council housing apartment, and dim, smoke-filled interiors of Glasgow’s take on the Grand Ole Opry with the same care and attention as Susannah’s stately, tasteful home.
But for all the film’s strong points, the biggest thing it has going for it is Buckley, who dances, stomps and twirls her way across the screen with such bon vivant zest that it’s impossible to look away from her. She’s tender and rude, sweaty and gorgeous, and oozes star quality from every pore. And still, this is no rosy working class drama. Taylor’s debut script is intricately woven and empathetic, without glamorizing the struggle. There’s no guarantee that Rose-Lynn will make it. But with Buckley in the driver’s seat, it’s enough just to watch her try.