Wild Rose: I Fall to Pieces, by David Bax
If you didn’t know that Nashville’s hockey team was called the Predators and you didn’t know that, a couple of years ago, they renamed a stretch of 5th Avenue to celebrate the team’s appearance in the Stanley Cup final, you might find it alarming when, in Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, our protagonist, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley), walks past a street sign that says, “Predators Way.” Most of Wild Rose, though, takes place far from Nashville, in Glasgow, where plenty of other people and socioeconomic realities threaten to turn Rose-Lynn into prey.
Rose-Lynn’s dream is to become a country music singer. She’s well-known, if not well-loved, in Glasgow’s tiny country scene but her sights are set quite a bit higher than that. She’s got a few obstacles in her path, though. Specifically, she’s a broke single mom of two kids with a disapproving mother of her own (Julie Walters). Oh and, when we first meet her, she’s just wrapping up a one-year, drug-related prison sentence.
Buckley got her show business start as a contestant on a singing competition television show. On the one hand, that makes it seem fitting that she would be cast as Rose-Lynn, whom the story demands have a powerful singing voice. But you would be forgiven for, perhaps condescendingly, being surprised at the depth, sympathy, nuance and physicality of Buckley’s talent, given her genesis. That will come as less of a shock, though, to those who caught 2017’s Beast, released and underseen here in the United States about a year ago. Wild Rose delivers on the promise of that almost unsettlingly self-assured and fully embodied performance.
Wild Rose has all the ingredients of pandering, cynical, faux-inspirational pap but Harper, screenwriter Nicole Taylor and the outstanding cast refuse any temptation to be dishonest with the audience or the characters. So many stories about the nobility of working class strife are made with condescension but Wild Rose is clear-eyed about the realities of being poor. This is as much a movie about country music as it is about the way that not having money means living on a knife’s edge where any unexpected expense or hiccup can toss you back down whatever rungs of the ladder you’ve managed to climb while also making you look unreliable or irresponsible in the eyes of those who can’t or wont’ understand. Which is a pretty country music point of view, come to think of it. Even when the film introduces a potential savior in the form of a wealthy housewife, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), by whom Rose-Lynn is hired as a maid, it dodges the potentially pat, contrived pitfalls by constantly questioning the motive and the dedication of this woman, who may just be a liberal do-gooder dilettante on the verge of moving on to the next thing that catches her fancy.
Harper underlines the potential pitfalls of Rose-Lynn hitching her dreams to Susannah’s whims. The bourgeois house Rose-Lynn cleans in between rehearsals, recording sessions and raising her kids may be brighter and more soft-edged than her anonymous, thin-walled flat but it is, noticeably, not any warmer. The only thing that glows in Rose-Lynn’s world are the neon lights of the bar where she sings and the Nashville streets where she hopes to.
Rose-Lynn may not be reflective enough to enunciate the power and meaning of those lights but they keep her on course like the north star nevertheless. Tattooed on her forearm are Harlan Howard’s immortal description of country music, “Three chords and the truth,” a snappy summation of what those neon lights represent for her. Wild Rose isn’t the disingenuous type of movie that’s going to suggest those five words will make Rose-Lynn a big star or even a good mother. But Harper and Buckley know the feeling of having but one small, powerful, anchor to hold onto in your life and, together, they’ve managed to make us know it too.