Who gets to make country music? Who gets to define what’s authentic and what’s appropriative? These questions have dogged alt-country — itself a reaction to pop-country pablum that’s taken over the mainstream — since its early ’90s rise. Forget what the gatekeepers would have you believe: The runaway success of singer-songwriters like Gillian Welch (a native New Yorker who grew up in Los Angeles) and Neko Case (born in Virginia but raised all over the place before finding an adopted hometown in Tacoma, Wash.) are proof that you don’t have to be a lifelong resident of the Deep South to understand the enduring appeal of folksy ballads about love and loss among the working class. All you need is three chords and the truth, right?
Breaking into the scene from all the way across the pond, however, might feel a bit more of a stretch. Just ask Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley, following up on the tremendous promise she showed in last year’s Beast), the cowboy boot–clad, Kitty Wells–worshipping Glaswegian at the heart of Wild Rose, director Tom Harper’s (occasionally magical) realist ballad about a self-destructive young woman on the road to fame. Recently released from prison after serving a year for smuggling heroin, our young heroine’s somehow still got some swagger in her step as she makes it back to her crumbling council flat, where her two young children nervously await their long-absent mother’s arrival. Played to perfection by Buckley — who co-wrote a number of the soundtrack’s songs and has the voice of a whiskey-tippling angel — Rose-Lynn is a wildfire: She burns bright, but she’s unpredictable.
Perpetually garbed in her signature white fringed leather jacket, Rose-Lynn is both sustained and burdened by her musical gifts. Clearly this woman’s got the raw talent (lord, can Buckley sing — no surprise to anyone who saw her start off her career on the BBC talent competition I’d Do Anything), but she’s irresponsible and prone to self-sabotage. Feeling trapped by her lot in life, she fumbles along recklessly, always looking for the easy route. She needs guidance, and she’s quite certain she’ll never find it cleaning houses in Glasgow. Life-sustaining glimmers of possibility flicker about here and there — something Harper and his cinematographer, George Steel, illustrate beautifully with their daydream-style interjections of movement and life into Rose-Lynn’s mundane existence cleaning houses — but in her mind, it’s Nashville or bust … and Nashville seems so far away.
She also needs a bit of luck, and she finds it in the form of Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), her wealthy boss who sees something in Rose-Lynn that Rose-Lynn has yet to see in herself. Susannah wants to use her industry connections to help Rose-Lynn properly pursue a career as a musician (to this point, Rose-Lynn’s been content kicking around a local dive bar as part of the house band). The pair end up striking up a friendship that eventually proves to be just as vital to Sophie as it is to Rose-Lynn; in many ways, Sophie takes on the role of the dream-nurturing figure Rose-Lynn’s long-suffering mother, Marion (played by the great Julie Walters), cannot be for her. Screenwriter Nicole Taylor kindly refuses to make any of these women immutable or one-dimensional — in fact, the decisions they make often surprise us, something that helps Wild Rose transcend its fairly conventional storyline.
There’s also something mighty refreshing about watching a film that doesn’t spend an iota of energy on developing some sort of romantic interest for its key characters. Like the great leading ladies of country music’s past who comprise much of the film’s soundtrack (from Emmylou Harris to Wynonna Judd), the women of Wild Rose are hardly ingénues: They may make mistakes, but they’re used to calling the shots and doing things their own way. (Speaking of which, the film’s final scene has a sweet and understated reveal that really brings down the house.) A Star Is Born, this thankfully is not: It’s Rose-Lynn’s show.