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Telling a proper underdog story really boils down to three primary ingredients. First, you need a plucky, charismatic, easy to love protagonist filled with lofty ambitions. Two, that protagonist requires not just a legitimate talent, but an impressive one that can properly blow an audiences’ hair back. And three, you need to have that ambition and impressive talent oppressed by powerful pressures that will seemingly not yield until all hope is lost. Regardless of the chosen subgenre, an underdog story that is able to combine these elements properly generally results in a fantastic cinematic experience.
The latest example of this is director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, which will wonderfully resonate with any movie-goer courtesy of the fact that it excels in all three highlighted areas: star Jessie Buckley is a revelation as the free-spirited, ever-hustling Rose-Lynn Harlan; her singing voice straightens your spine when you hear it; and the stakes feel massive as the realities of her life make it seem like achieving her goals might be impossible. Embedded in an excellent script by Nicole Taylor, they combine to create a heart-filled feature that is grounded in a way that earns it all of its tears and cheers, and ultimately does what every great underdog story should do: leaves you with a big smile on your face.
Set in Glasgow, Scotland, Wild Rose begins with the emancipation of Jessie Buckley – who has spent the last year of her life in prison and is excited to get her life going again. Primarily, she has aspirations to become the biggest country star in the world. It’s a dream that she is willing to go to the ends of the Earth to chase, and has a passion (and by extension a temper) that pushes her to never let anything get in her way.
You might think that being a country singer living in Glasgow instead of, say, Nashville, is a pretty big obstacle alone, but it is just one of many in Rose-Lynn life. She has a criminal past following her; she is a single mother of two children she had before she was 18; her relationship with her mother (Julie Walters) – who looked after her kids while she was in prison – is intensely strained; and her financial circumstances aren’t exactly ebullient.
To make ends meet she gets a job as a housekeeper, but the menial work turns out to be a gig that is incidentally filled with tremendous opportunity. Her wealthy employer, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), overhears her singing to herself one day, and is beyond impressed with her talent. Susannah immediately gets the urge to help in any way she can, which blows the struggling artist away – however, what lingers over their relationship is the fact that Rose-Lynn failed to disclose both her criminal past and the existence of her children.
Because of this lie of omission, the would-be country singer finds herself torn between the responsibilities born out of the mistakes of her past, and the chance to potentially live the life of her fantasies.
It’s that terrifically hard quandary that makes Wild Rose feel like a particularly special story, as it’s just so impressively real. This is a movie that neither sugarcoats the challenges of motherhood, nor provides a glitzy path to international stardom. There is a deep honesty in watching Rose-Lynn’s frustration in the light of feeling like her kids are an anchor on her dreams – and while you recognize the obvious irresponsibility within those thoughts, you also completely empathize.
This is also not yet another movie where the awesomely talented individual happens to meet exactly the right person at the right time, and gets to ride a rocket ship to money and celebrity – all while eventually understanding its trappings. Frankly, it has way more integrity than that. This is a movie about Rose-Lynn’s emotional struggle, the toll it takes, and the reality that there are no easy answers, and it’s exceptional because of it.
There is a certain irony in this, though, because while there is no paved path towards becoming a country music sensation in the plot, the movie itself one of the most impressive instant star-making turns we’ve seen in a while. Jessie Buckley, who has spent most of her career on stage and on television, is simple perfection in Wild Rose, and it’s easy to imagine her very quickly becoming a sought-after Hollywood talent. Her singing voice by itself is something to behold, but that’s only half of it. As mentioned at the start, this kind of storytelling needs a hero with whom you can really fall in love, and even with all of her faults that’s how you wind up feeling about Rose-Lynn – and that’s especially true because of Buckley’s performance.
Unlike a few recent blockbuster hits of similar ilk, Wild Rose isn’t a high profile remake, and it doesn’t chronicle the life or specific songs of known bands or musicians. This means that it won’t get nearly the same kind of exposure or box office earnings - which is a shame, because it’s actually better than most of those comparable titles. Go for the Jessie Buckley performance, stay for the impressively told story, and be proud of the fact that you discovered it on the big screen