Rose-Lynn Harlan, the fiery-haired heroine of the hugely satisfying kitchen-sink fairy tale “Wild Rose,” isn’t the kind of gal who whistles while she works. She sings while she vacuums, running the cleaner across the carpet and crooning her favorite country tunes, her voice a startling distillation of raw talent and emotion. She closes her eyes and loses herself in the music, and for a brief moment reality fades from view, a foyer becomes a stage and an act of daily drudgery becomes a glorious, hallucinatory bliss-out.
Rose-Lynn shares her star-is-born aura with Jessie Buckley, the extraordinary Irish actress playing her. But the foyer isn’t hers; it belongs to her wealthy employer, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who takes a fanciful interest in her musical abilities and decides to play the fairy godmother. But Rose-Lynn’s chances of realizing her dreams seem as far away as Nashville, the country-music mecca she’s long pined for from her hometown, Glasgow.
“I should have been born in America,” she frets, bemoaning the fact that the only other person on this side of the Atlantic who gives a damn about country is the legendary radio host Bob Harris (who later makes a lovely cameo). She doesn’t yet realize that the absurdity of her situation — being a Scotswoman with a passion for deeply American music — is precisely what makes her gift so indelible and unique.
She’ll figure it out soon enough. Harlan Howard’s fabled formula for the country genre — “three chords and the truth” — means so much to Rose-Lynn that she’s had it tattooed on her arm. That mantra could also describe “Wild Rose,” which, like most good country tunes, is a simple, skillful arrangement of tried-and-true notes that are no less affecting for being so familiar. The screenwriter, Nicole Taylor, and the director, Tom Harper, compose their story in clean, stirring melodic lines that they return to again and again, treating Rose-Lynn’s many setbacks — as well as her small, crucial steps toward growth and self-discovery — like subtle variations on a refrain.
That fall-backward-stumble-forward rhythm is a natural one for Rose-Lynn, as it is for many of us, though her most recent tumble has been rougher than most. When we first meet her, she’s striding out of the prison where she spent 12 months for a rash attempt at heroin smuggling, a smile on her face and a curfew-enforcing ankle monitor beneath her cowgirl boots. She’s only 23 and eager to slip back into some of her life’s comforting routines, including hooking up with an on-and-off boyfriend (James Harkness) and singing with her band at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry.
But not everyone is willing to welcome Rose-Lynn back, at least not on the same terms as before. She has two young kids — their names, in a nice touch, are Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and Lyle (Adam Mitchell) — who have spent the past year living with their grandmother, Marion (Julie Walters), and they’re not exactly thrilled to be back in their mother’s care. Dependable and unyielding where Rose-Lynn is flighty and impulsive, Marion regards her daughter with a wary distrust that is the surest sign of her love, as well as her thoroughly justified concern for her grandchildren’s future.
Taylor’s script is plausibly grounded in the rhythms of day-to-day family life, in the tough realities of cramped apartments, meager paychecks and broken promises. It knows that few things can be harder to overcome than a child’s disappointment, but also that nothing boosts morale like an all-night cleaning spree. But for all the ways in which the decks are stacked against her, Rose-Lynn is interested in more than simply getting by. Her inner restlessness — the way she seems desperate to survive one minute, then determined to shoot for the stars the next — is the driving force behind every moment of Buckley’s performance.
Long before her breakthrough work in last year’s harrowing psychological thriller “Beast,” Buckley came to fame singing show tunes and pop ballads on the BBC talent show “I’d Do Anything.” But she brings more than just a powerful set of pipes to this role; she finds the emotional coherence in an array of seemingly contradictory moods and impulses, showing us how Rose-Lynn’s brash, swaggering confidence goes hand-in-hand with her crippling insecurities. Those contradictions come to the fore when she finds herself on the receiving end of Susannah’s attention.
Living a life of apparent ease and mild boredom with her husband and their two kids, Susannah becomes determined to nurture and eventually finance Rose-Lynn’s talent. She knows nothing about country music, just as she knows nothing about Rose-Lynn’s family life or her time behind bars, setting up expectations that are bound to be disappointed. Their scenes together are the heart of the movie, in part because Okonedo touches so many deft and delicate notes: She nails the warm, fluttering tones of a woman who leads a life of undeniable privilege, but she also makes it impossible not to admire the warmth and utter sincerity beneath Susannah’s do-gooder act.
The story builds to a wrenching series of shifts and reversals — physical, emotional, tonal, musical. (The country-stuffed soundtrack includes several original songs, including a showstopper written by Mary Steenburgen, Caitlyn Smith and Kate York.) But the crowd-pleasing spirit that animates “Wild Rose” is also, happily, a spirit of nuance, and Rose-Lynn’s soul searching leads her to an honest, hard-earned understanding of who she is and who she is destined to become.
What she learns has clear implications, too, for those of us in the audience who count ourselves among her new fans: We may not be able to outrun the past, but that doesn’t mean we have to give it the final lyric.
Rated: R, for language throughout, some sexuality and brief drug material
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Starts June 21 at Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood; The Landmark, West Los Angeles