It’s subtle enough that you might not notice it while “Wild Rose” is telling its story on the screen. Maybe it’ll hit you later, on the ride or walk home.
This is a world of women, succeeding or failing, aiding or hindering, self-helping or self-destroying, where the men are in the background — drinking/sex buddies, house band members, all-but-anonymous stepping stones or obstacles to a woman obsessed with achieving her dream — becoming a country music star.
That’s what Rose Harlan, played in a break out performance by Irish-born actress Jesse Buckley (Marya in British TV’s “War & Peace”), covets above all. If only she could stick to it, put the effort in, maybe learn to play an instrument and write songs, sober up.
If only she wasn’t in prison when we meet her. Of course, that wasn’t a hindrance for Merle or Johnny Cash. But still, everything we learn about her in a brisk opening montage — exuberant on release, stopping for a quick drink and a shag with an old beau — points to “This is NEVER happening.”
Rose is in her mid-20s, with two kids she gave birth to before she turned 18. Her mum (Julie Walters) has been raising them — because Rose was in prison, and Rose took care of her own impulses and “needs” before coming “home” to her plainly-traumatized, almost-strangers children, aptly named Wynonna and Lyle.
With an ankle monitor keeping her at home between 7pm and 7am, how will she make time for honky-tonking?
And hell, Rose lives in Glasgow. “Whoever HAIRD of a country music star from Glasgooooooo?” she purrs in that lovely burr.
Screenwriter Nicole Taylor, who did that wonderful Dominic West/Romola Gary/Ben Whishaw Cold War TV series “The Hour,” cooks up a marvelous portrait of self-destruction that at times feels like an homage to Jennifer Jason Leigh’s indie cinema finest hour, “Georgia,” at other times a bit like “The Thing Called Love,” seeing the Nashville Dream through an outsider’s eyes.
But the “tell” here is the casting of Walters as Rose’s long-suffering mother. “Educating Rita” introduced the world to Walters, and Buckley’s Rose sounds just like her with her “Maybe 20 years at the bakers’ was good enough for you, but not for me” defiance.
Taylor lets us fall-in-hate with Rose, who is, by any yardstick, a terrible mother. Her bipolar temperament — drinking, laughing, the life of the party when she’s onstage or at the pub, exploding at those who have replaced her as “the star” of the Glasgow Grand Ole’ Opry, at her mother for not dropping everything to help out with the kids — makes us fear for the children.
Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) is bookish and won’t speak to her mother. Little Lyle (Adam Mitchell) is acting out, furious at the world and the only parent he’s ever had a chance to know, but wasn’t interested in knowing him.
Taylor introduces a veritable fairy godmother into this circle of dysfunction. Sophie Okenedo (“Hotel Rwanda”) is sweetness, light, enthusiasm and wealth, the woman whose house Rose takes over cleaning. Susannah doesn’t know about the prison record or the kids, doesn’t keep track of Rose raiding her liquor cabinet.
But she is given a tour of Rose’s favorite tattoo — the most flattering and pithy definition of country music ever put in ink.
“Three chords and the truth.”
As Rose loses herself in her headphones, belting out country classics, dancing and imagining the house band at the Opry backing her whilst she vacuums, Susannah’s kids are smitten. And soon Susannah is as enthused about “Country and Western” — “It’s just COUNTRY. There ain’t no ‘Western.'” — as Rose.
And she starts helping.
I love the way Taylor and Buckley set us up for disappointments, the way Rose is always disappointing her mother and children. A chance to meet BBC Radio’s legendary country music program host (Bob Harris plays himself)? Rose gets drunk on the train and has her money, phone and bag stolen.
Buckley is a gloriously earthy presence at the heart of “Wild Rose,” so much so that you can’t help but root for this reckless wreck. We can see that the white leather jacket and omnipresent white cowboy boots and star spangled stage blouse aren’t enough. Freckled, uninhibited and unexercised Rose tends more towards Celtic “cute” than pretty, her voice a tad thin and undistinguished to stand out in an industry/art form of bombshells and belters.
Buckley never lets us see that Rose sees this, and takes us on this drive down Delusional Dreams Blvd. with her. Walters brings a feisty sobriety to her mother, and Okenedo an indulgent understanding that’s plainly based on misunderstanding.
I wasn’t keen on the tacked-on finale, part of a third act collapse that dings but doesn’t utterly derail the picture. But “Wild Rose” is still a vivid, estrogen-charged charmer, a winning twist on “chasing your dream” and “You can have it all” with just enough sober slapdowns to keep it honest.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some sexuality and brief drug material
Cast: Jesse Buckley, Sophie Okenedo, Julie Walters
Credits: Directed by Tom Harper, script by Nicole Taylor. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:41