I’m not an especially avid fan of country music, so I’m not sure that Wild Rose ever had a chance to speak directly to my soul. I did, however, recognize the universal appeal of the genre when the aspiring country music singer in the film is asked why she loves country so much and she responds, “Because it’s three chords and the truth.” That’s basically the same explanation you’ll hear about the appeal of punk and all other stripped-down mutations of rock n’ roll, and it’s one this movie conveys surprisingly well despite country’s not-for-everyone cultural barriers (to the point where “three chords and the truth” is tattooed across its protagonist’s forearm). It needs to sell that universal appeal to the audience too, since its premise relies on it being believable that a young Scottish woman who’s never been to America is singularly obsessed with making it as a country musician in Nashville. Most of Wild Rose’s tension is in how those dreams of graduating from a local sensation at a Western-themed dive bar called Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry to the real-deal half a world away conflict with her means and obligations at home. It’s easy to get swept up in that kind of underdog story no matter how much personal investment you have in country music scene in particular.
The reason I sought out this minor indie drama despite my general disinterest in its milieu is that its star, Jessie Buckley, was incredible in last year’s criminally underseen thriller Beast. She’s just as endlessly watchable here as an unlikely country singer-songwriter pursuing a career in Americana all the way from Scotland, even though that thematic territory isn’t nearly as appealing to me personally as the Wuthering Heights-flavored crime novel mystery of Beast. Wild Rose is a sort of delayed-coming-of-age picture for Buckley, as she plays an immature twentysomething petty criminal who’d much rather get sloppy dunk & sing country tunes with strangers than spend a quiet afternoon engaging with her own children, whom she treats as a burden. She relies on her increasingly frustrated mother (Julie Walters) to tend to her obligations as she storms off like an unruly teen to play pretend rockstar in a cheesy country bar. A lot of the growing up she does in the film is in realizing that she can take an active role in pursuing a career as a country singer and be a decent person to her own kids. All she really needs is encouragement (and financial support) from her local community to push her in the right direction, as she starts her journey to self-realization as an ex-convict with every little to work with and an isolating sense of selfishness.
Wild Rose does occasionally dip into a maudlin kind of Sundance-friendly inspo-drama that I don’t always have the patience for, but it at least tempers its sentimentality with a relatable layer of crude vulgarity. Buckley cusses her way through the picture in a thick Scottish accent that cuts through what could easily feel like an artificial cliché if it were a PG drama staged in Nashville instead of the drunken end of Glasgow. Buckley’s not quite as mesmerizing here as she is in Beast, but that earlier film didn’t leave room for her to exhibit what made her a star to watch in Britain in the first place: her beautiful singing voice. Even as a country music agnostic, I was thoroughly won over by all her vocal contributions to the soundtrack. It was just all the other country tunes that left me cold, give or take a brief cameo from Kasey Musgraves. I cried in the exact moments when Buckley wanted me to (usually in her character’s interactions with her mother and kids) and my heart soared in her few moments of triumph (most notably in the performance of a song inexplicably co-written by Marky heckin’ Steenburgen of all people). That’s not too bad for a film with two layers of genre skepticism for me to fight past as a perennial big-city grump – country music and saccharine melodrama. Buckley is just that good, and I’ll apparently watch her in just about anything.